A bipartisan proposal for performance management in the next administration

Steve Kelman applauds a new report, and its potential for pushing smart management under the next president.

Shutterstock image.

Last week, at an event co-sponsored by the National Academy for Public Administration and the Volcker Alliance, a report laying out priorities for using performance measurement in the next administration was presented as one of a series of transition reports that NAPA has commissioned in various areas of public management.

In some sense, the report's headline was its co-authors -- Robert Shea, who ran the George W. Bush administration's performance measurement efforts from the Office of Management and Budget, and Shelley Metzenbaum, who had the same job in the President Barack Obama's first term. (Full disclosure: Metzenbaum and I are married.) I welcome correction if I have missed earlier examples (please comment in the blog's comment section if you have some), but I can't think of a single earlier example of a situation where senior officials with the same job in two different administrations have jointly issued a set of recommendations to their successor about what approach to follow.

Watching this year's election season, it is hard to avoid the view that our country would be better off if what Shea and Metzenbaum have done happened more often. Continuity is particularly important for implementing systemic management reforms, such as making performance measurement an accepted part of how the government does business, since these reforms typically are low visibility and can easily be put off track by starts and stops with every new administration. (Believing this to be important, when I became administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at the beginning of the Bill Clinton administration, I asked my Republican predecessor Al Burman to tell me the one or two of his most important initiatives, and I more or less promised to continue them during my service.)

Early on, the report states what I consider perhaps the most cogent brief justification for managing with performance measures I have seen. Without performance measurement, "government and its partners [carry] out activities they hope will work without knowing whether they, in fact, do. Moreover, it lacks the means to inform and encourage continual improvement once effective practices are identified."

The beginning of the report also includes an overview of efforts to involve the federal government in performance measurement since passage of the Government Performance and Results Act at the beginning of the Clinton administration in 1993, and through efforts under Bush and Obama. In the spirit I have suggested here, the report wants to "ensure we build on the lessons of the past rather than start anew."

Quite impressively, Shea has signed on to a document that mixes praise for the efforts of the Bush administration to raise the visibility of performance measurement with some criticism of the creation of a compliance culture around the measures, where "program managers too often failed to engage and viewed measurement and evaluation as irritating burdens rather than helpful tools."

I think the biggest substantive theme of the report was urging steps to encourage information sharing and learning among people working on the front lines on performance measurement in agencies. As I wrote in a different context in a blog post a number of months ago about Challenge.gov, one of the main contributions governmentwide or interagency organizations can make to management improvement is precisely to establish fora for people working in some area in different agencies to talk and compare notes.

The report proposes establishment of "a performance management knowledge exchange network that enables the federal government, state and local governments, non-profit organizations, and other partners and stakeholders to adopt the most effective outcomes-focused performance and evidence-based management practices to address shared problems and pursue opportunities." (This sounds a bit too much like a certifying body for my taste, I would prefer more informal information-sharing.) A very practical suggestion is to "enable sorting across goals by program type" on the Performance.gov site "to facilitate cross-agency learning and collaboration."

Toward the end, the report makes a number of specific recommendations for new initiatives by the next administration that could deepen the practice of performance measurement in government. They suggest testing "use of on-line crowd-sourcing and feedback via Performance.gov and other platforms to get constructive feedback on goals, measures, evidence, and strategies." And, interestingly, the report suggests putting the most-senior OMB budget officials, program associate directors, in charge as goal leaders for a mission-oriented cross-agency priority goal. This would be a valuable step forward if senior OMB budget officials agreed to it. (In my experience, these leaders are often allergic to management.)

With the kind of endorsement this report represents, chances are good that we will now be having four presidents in a row who endorse this.

I often said when I first started teaching young Kennedy School students about this just before the beginning of this millennium that it was my hope that their generation of public servants would find using performance measurement to manage in government as natural as their counterparts in the private sector found it to be on their jobs. We are not there yet, but we keep getting closer. Thanks, Robert and Shelley for helping.

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