By Steve Kelman

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Cross-agency performance goals in the president's budget

Shutterstock image: executive handshake.

Long-time blog readers will know that I am something of a fanatic about the importance of using performance measures to improve government effectiveness – these are government’s counterpart to the profit measure that companies use to drive better performance. Therefore, when the president’s budget comes out, I always look at the section on performance measurement in the management section of the budget to see what the administration is saying about priorities in this area.

So it was interesting for me see that the main news in the section of the budget this year on performance measurement involved cross-agency performance goals.

For most of the history of performance measurement in government, goals have been set on a one-agency basis. To take a local government example, only the police had crime goals, not any of the other organizations whose behavior might influence crime.

In 2012, for the first time, goals were introduced that would require several agencies to address them together. (Full disclosure: My wife, Shelley Metzenbaum, took a leadership role in establishing the cross-agency goals while she was working at OMB.) There are currently 15 such cross-agency goals -- seven in “mission” areas such as cybersecurity and improving infrastructure-permitting processes, eight in “management” areas such as shared services and strategic sourcing.

The budget document that just came out highlighted two initiatives related to cross-agency goals; these were the only initiatives in the area of performance measurement discussed at all.

The first was announced in President Barack Obama’s speech to Senior Executive Service members in December -- to establish an executive development program for SES candidates that will allow (initially 10) people to work for a year on a project associated with one of the cross-agency goals. The second was an announcement that the administration would seek congressional authorization to reprogram a total of $15 million from agency budgets (a technique, which agencies usually call a tax, used to support other government-wide activities such as the CIO and CFO councils) to support an infrastructure for teams working on cross-agency goals, including efforts to improve the multi-agency infrastructure permitting process.

There is a common view among public management experts in academia and government that, as problems government faces become more complex, successful collaboration across agency boundaries grows increasingly important for delivering good results.

That collaboration is not easy. I remember reading in political science courses I took in graduate school decades ago about cross-agency coordinating councils. The view then was that it is extremely difficult for these activities to be effective, because agencies simply used them to advocate for the approach they took to problems, and tried to get other agencies to go along with that, rather than actually adapting their own behavior. Furthermore, these tended to be low-priority activities, to which organizations assigned the people least likely to be missed from their regular jobs.

What is different this time around, if anything? First, most of these goals are more oriented toward implementation than to formulating coordinated policies across organizations. While achieving common action across agencies on implementation questions is not necessarily a picnic (I have read hair-raising accounts of efforts to get agencies to agree on common forms), it is easier than achieving common policy in areas where participants have very different missions.

Second, it is promising that each cross-agency goal has been assigned goal leaders, typically a senior White House staffer and one or more senior agency political or career leaders. The cross-agency national security policymaking structure certainly does not mean that individual agencies abandon their traditional perspectives to security issues, but the involvement of senior White House officials at least means the cross-agency apparatus is not ignored.

Finally, as with the cross-posting assignments in the intelligence community started after 9/11, the opportunities for one agency’s employees to work on government-wide projects should be helpful.

This is very much a work in progress. I will be curious to see how it develops.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 04, 2015 at 9:18 AM


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