GAO: Congress should help focus program management

New report says congressional staffers must be convinced of the effectiveness of the Program Assessment Rating Tool.

Performance Budgeting: PART Focuses Attention on Program Performance

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Although the Office of Management and Budget’s program assessment tool has brought a keener focus to program management, Congress should be more engaged in the process, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) provides a frame work for evaluating programs under the President’s Management Agenda. However, OMB officials are not doing enough to convince congressional staffers of PART’s effectiveness, and many staffers were concerned about the measures and goals, according to the GAO report.

“Most [staffers] reported that they would be more likely to use the PART results to inform their deliberations if OMB consulted them early in the PART process regarding the selection, and timing of the programs to assess, the methodology and evidence used or to be used, and how the PART information can best be communicated and presented to meet their needs,” the report states.

Both OMB and Congress should push for more discussions about the PART process, the report states. Congress also should develop a way to better communicate measures for congressional priorities, and create a more structured forum for offering a congressional perspective, GAO officials said.

Similarly, OMB officials should ensure that Congress can comment early in the PART process on the areas most in need for review. They should also seek congressional input on what performance information is useful and the best way to present it to Congress.

To OMB’s credit, PART has improved the administration’s oversight of program management and budget discussions, the GAO report states. Agency officials laud the tool for encouraging “an evaluation culture within agencies providing external motivation for program review,” according to the report. The recommendations based on PART assessment lay a strong foundation for long-term program improvement.

However, GAO officials note the process continues to be labor-intensive for OMB and agency officials. In addition, because of the long-term focus, there are few observable short-term improvements, GAO officials found. OMB’s most recent PART data from February show most of the recommendations have not been fully implemented, and therefore it is too early to see if PART is producing the intended results, according to the report.

OMB officials have decided to assess nearly all federal programs, providing more than 1,700 recommendations, which could lead to an even longer time frame for presenting tangible results, GAO officials found.

“Because OMB has chosen to assess nearly all federal programs, OMB and agency resources are diffused across multiple areas instead of concentrated on those areas of highest priority both within agencies and across the federal government,” the report states.

GAO officials suggested the administration target specific programs based on priorities and costs, as well as focus on finding related programs for concurrent review.

OMB officials agreed with GAO’s findings, according to the report, and have outlined plans to make the process less of a burden and more collaborative among agencies.

“In many cases, it takes only administrative action to address weaknesses in program efficiency and effectiveness and the PART process has helped do just that,” OMB deputy director for management Clay Johnson wrote in a letter to the GAO commenting on the report. “But where congressional action is required to ameliorate a program flaw, GAO points out that PART has been less successful.”

A related GAO report also released last week shows many agencies still struggle to find appropriate measures and data to conduct follow-up evaluations of programs, as recommended by OMB. Roughly half of the programs GAO reviewed at four agencies had completed an evaluation two years after the fiscal 2004 PART reviews and recommendations.

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