More on Senate Performance Hearing

Yesterday I highlighted Jeff Zients’ testimony before the Senate Budget Committee’s Task Force on Government Performance.  But there were two other witnesses who provided some interesting insights, and Senator Mark Warner offered a glimpse of where the Task Force might be heading.

Sir Michael Barber, who led the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit under Tony Blair, described how Blair created and used the Delivery Unit after he was re-elected in 2001.   “Its mission was to secure delivery of about 20 major domestic policy priorities, selected by the Prime Minister in consultation with his cabinet colleagues,” he began.

Barber said the 20 priority areas focus on issues that were most important to citizens, such as reducing crime and ensuring punctuality of the railway, and that were clearly measurable.  He described how targets were set, agency and program “delivery plans” were drawn up, and a routine of regular reports and problem-solving meetings was used to ensure action.

Paul Posner, president of the American Society for Public Administration and a former senior official at the Government Accountability Office, talked about the staying power of the concept of performance budgeting and how it has evolved over the past four decades.  He said that the Budget Committee could put in place a performance assessment process that could lay the groundwork for making performance-based budget choices. 

He noted that “the ability of policymakers to conduct such an annual review process is circumscribed by the structure of the budget process itself.”  For example, tradeoffs between spending programs and tax expenditures cannot happen.  So a housing grant and a home tax credit cannot be considered together in the budget process because these “policy tools” are “owned” by different congressional committees with different jurisdictions. 

He suggested “The Budget Committee Task Force might start by doing selective assessments of the portfolio of programs addressing common outcomes across the government,” such as programs related to food safety or low income housing.  He noted: “The Budget Committee is ideally positioned to lead the way in undertaking these crosscutting assessments” and that it has “the ability to use outcomes as the great unifier.”

Senator Warner observed that the British seem to have a better ability to reach across programs and outcomes than the US.  Sir Michael noted that while the Prime Minister does have authority to do so, he created cabinet committees around each of the 20 outcome areas, designated a lead minister, and gave each cabinet committee a budget to help coordinate action. The Parliament has little to do with this, but in the US any similar process would require a greater role for the legislative branch.

Senator Warner said his Task Force would undertake a “mapping” of programs, agencies, and congressional committees that touch upon a policy arena, and that the Task Force would select and map two or three policy areas as “proof of concept” pilots.  He got the agreement of OMB’s Zients to help, as well.

Next step – selecting the policy arenas!

OMB’s New Performance Principles

OMB Chief Performance Office Jeff Zients testified today before the Senate Budget Committee’s new Task Force on Government Performance.  He laid out a set of five key principles OMB will follow in developing a governmentwide performance management system.

He prefaced his remarks noting: “The test of a performance management system is whether it is used. . . the current approach fails this test.  Congress doesn’t use it.  Agencies don’t use it.  And it doesn’t produce meaningful information for the public.  There’s too much emphasis on process and not enough on outcomes.”

He went on to say: “This must change.  Federal managers and employees at all levels must use performance goals and measures to set priorities, monitor progress, and diagnose problems.”  He said that OMB wanted to build on lessons best practices from states, localities, other countries, and federal agencies.  He wants to use the best of what works to create a new performance management system based on the following five principles:

  • Senior leader ownership of performance management process.  Secretaries and Deputies will be charged with the setting of agency goals and will be responsible for performance against those goals
  • Cascading goals and measurements.  A clear line must link agency strategic goals and measures to unit-level, program-level, and ultimately individual targets.
  • Outcome-oriented, cross-agency goals and measurements.  Current goals and measures connect agencies to their missions, but broad government outcomes often require contributions from multiple actors across different agencies as well as outside the government.  Goals and measures must support coordination across these boundaries, with a clear sense as to who the “goal owner” is and what various organizations must contribute.
  • Relentless review and accountability.  Reviews must be performed at all levels of government on progress, at least quarterly. “Only this kind of relentless review process will result in performance management becoming ingrained into the culture of government.”
  • Transparent process.  Transparency plays a critical role in engaging the public, Congress, and the overall government workforce.  It promotes understanding, innovation, involvement, and accountability.

Zients noted some progress already.  Agencies have developed three to eight “ambitious, outcome-oriented high priority goals which they intend to achieve in the next 12 to 24 months” and this list will be released as part of the fiscal year 2011 budget process.  He also noted the use of management dashboards, such as the IT Dashboard, and said “We plan similar dashboards for other common government functions, including procurement, financial management, and personnel management.”   He also said OMB will look for ways to make agency Performance and Accountability Reports more useful.  The Department of the Interior’s report may be a useful model.

He said he looked forward to working with the Senate Budget Committee.  He said to the Senate task force, “we believe you have a unique perspective for examining how the government can more effectively achieve broad goals through multiple programs that cut across agency and appropriation boundaries.”

Chairman Mark Warner noted that his task force would be examining two to three policy goals and mapping out the programs, agencies, and committee jurisdictions involved, along with potential broad goals and outcome measures that might be developed.

Acquisition 2.0

OMB yesterday released its latest guidance on federal acquisition.  This new guidance, Increasing Competition and Structuring Contracts for the Best Results, provides guidelines for agencies to move to more competitive and lower risk types of contracts, along with semi-annual reports on progress.

But it is worth standing back and looking at some of the one-the-ground trends that are evolving in the acquisition community.  A very good article by Federal Computer Week’s Matthew Wiegart, “2.0 Takes Hold in the Acquisition Community,” provides just such a perspective.

In his article, he describes several examples of what is being called “Acquisition 2.0.” 

The first is the creation of self-organizing discussion groups.  The best known is the on-line forum hosted by GovLoop.  The informal champion is GSA’s assistant commissioner Mary Davie. This forum discusses trends in hiring acquisition professionals, ways of responding to bid protests, and ways to meet government goals for “greening” procurement.

The second is the Better Buy Project. Also championed by Davie, this project is a discussion group co-sponsored by several organizations with the goal of identifying ways of improving the first phase of the acquisition process, known as the “pre-award phase.”  Here, the goal is to draw on the broader acquisition community, both inside and outside the government, to identify best practices and innovative ideas.

The third is the use of on-line training and virtual mentoring. Agencies are increasing their hiring of acquisition specialists (OMB’s goal is a 5 percent increase by 2014) and the demand for training and mentoring is increasing as well.  Agencies are beginning to use on-line training and videos of retiring acquisition experts to bring new staff up to speed.  This follows a similar pattern in commercial industry.

In addition, there seems to be a fourth trend — trying innovative ways of doing things.  A great example is offered by former administrator of the governmentwide Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), Steve Kelman.  He describes how some researchers are piloting the use of prediction markets to see if they can improve cost and schedule forecasts in federal acquisition programs.  This is reminiscent of how the District of Columbia managed its portfolio of technology projects using a shadow “stock market” of these projects.

However, even with these examples of new openness and innovation, another former administrator of OFPP, Dee Lee, says that, more broadly, acquisition employees are scared and in a defensive crouch because of the general climate of distrust and criticism from Congress, watchdog groups, and the inspectors general.  She says that the administration has to provide leadership if it wants to overcome this climate and expand the use of Acquisition 2.0 approaches.  Maybe this new champion will be the recently nominated head of OFPP, Dan Gordon.  Kelman seems to think so, based on an effusive blog he wrote about Gordon’s nomination!

Davenport: Make Better Decisions

Noted business author Tom Davenport has an article, “Make Better Decisions,” in the November issue of Harvard Business Review .  He describes the prevalence, in the business world, of what he calls “decision-making disorder,” but this also has real applicability to government.

Tom Davenport
Prof. Tom Davenport

He says decisions have “generally been viewed as the prerogative of individuals – usually senior executives. The process employed, the information used, the logic relied on, have been left up to them, in something of a black box.” He notes that, unlike other business processes, “decision making has rarely been the focus of systematic analysis inside the firm.” But, he notes, there are many opportunities to improve decision making, just as there are opportunities to improve other business processes.

He lists a series of useful books that are being widely read on ways to improve decisions, but concludes “few companies have actually adopted their recommendations.” Still, he confidently lays out four “I”steps that he believes can improve decision making:

Identification of key decisions to be made. Without some prioritization, all decisions will be treated as equal. This probably means important decisions won’t be analyzed sufficiently before they are made.

Inventory of factors that need to go into making key decisions. What the are roles, processes, systems, and behaviors your organization should be using to make effective decisions? It is important to establish a common language in your organization around how decisions are made.

Intervention by top leaders. Leaders need to look not only at the decisions being made but also at how they would be implemented.

Institutionalization of a decision making process. Organizations serious about making effective decisions invest in defining a process, developing the tools, and training their executives on how to use it effectively.

Davenport concludes: “Analytics and decision automation are among the most powerful tools for improving decision making,” yet he cautions that “multiple perspectives yield better results” and that managers should not “build into their businesses analytical models they don’t understand.”

On-Line Town Halls

DC Crowds - Source: Encyclopedia BritannicaThis past summer the spectacle of unruly congressional town hall meetings on health care reform played across the media. Separately, the Obama Administration has been working on an on-line approach for greater citizen engagement but found some citizen groups tried to push their own agendas, such as the “legalize marijuana” and the “birthers” demanding President Obama’s “true” birth certificate.

Can citizens engage civilly and constructively?  The Congressional Management Foundation released a study today, “On-Line Town Hall Meetings:   Exploring Democracy in the 21st Century.”  This study reports on a series of pilot on-line town halls that might serve as an additional tool Members of Congress can use to engage their constituents.  The purpose of the study was to see what worked and what did not.

The pilots were small, involving one senator (Carl Levin) and a dozen House members.  Senator Levin’s town hall involved 200 people; the others involved only a couple dozen participants apiece.   The study’s organizers invited participants based on their representativeness of their districts. The town halls focused on the topic of immigration and were held between 2006 and 2007.  Oftentimes the Member was in Washington and not in his or her district.  To see if it made a difference, non-partisan background materials were shared with some participants but not others.

The results were fairly positive.  There was more participation by under-represented groups (young, old, minorities) as well as a high quality in the discussion.  While there were relatively few participants, those that did participate talked about their experience with neighbors.  They also increased their political participation, for example, by voting in elections where they might not have in the past.  Also, 95 percent of the participants said they would likely participate in similar events in the future.

In addition, the town halls increased constituents’ approval of their Members from 46 percent before the sessions to 62 percent afterwards, with an assessment of the “accessibility” of the Members increasing from 48 percent to 80 percent.  Members were seen as more knowledgeable and qualified, as well.

While some noted that an on-line town hall does not capture the “mood of the room” or allow for a back-and-forth discussion, more participants felt heard because if their questions were not asked during the session the questions were recorded and followed up on later.

The executive branch shortly may plunge into the use of electronic forums in a bigger way than Members of Congress, but there are clearly lessons to be learned in the use of electronic tools that can be beneficial to both executive and legislative branches.  Hopefully, there will be dedicated efforts to fine-tuning the use of electronic tools for engaging citizens, especially since they seem to open more avenues for more citizens!

New Senate Task Force on Performance

The Senate Budget Committee has created a new Task Force on Government Performance, according to a press release issued this morning.  To be led by Senator Mark Warner, the task force “will examine the federal government’s management framework and identify opportunities to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of federal programs and services.”

Senator Mark Warner
Senator Mark Warner

The task force “will also examine how performance and program evaluation information is used during the budget process and draw on best practices from public, private, and nonprofit experience, and from previous federal performance reform efforts.” 

Senator Warner will hold his first hearing next week, on October 29th.  According to the press release: “This hearing will explore opportunities for improvement to federal program evaluation and performance initiatives and provide updates on current executive branch efforts. It will also explore lessons learned from past performance reform efforts in the U.S. and the United Kingdom and how to generate more meaningful performance information in Congress.” 

Interestingly, this effort seems to dovetail neatly into some of the Obama Administration’s efforts, such as its recent memo to agencies on increasing the use of program evaluation and evidence-based decision making.

Senator Warner’s interest in government performance reaches back to the days when he was governor of Virginia and helped create that state’s performance management framework.  His leadership resulted in that state being rated as the best managed state in the country, as rated by the Pew Center on the States.  Maybe he will bring some of those ideas to the federal government!

OMB: A Change in Tone

WFED’s Jason Miller reports that the Office of Management and Budget wants to change its stripes and “move away from command and control toward a focus on collaboration.”

The old National Performance Review tried do this and failed.  At the time, NPR’s recommendations to “Reinvent OMB’s Management Mission” and “Improve OMB’s Relationships with Other Agencies” were seen as so controversial, that the formal recommendations were never printed. But this time the effort is being led from the inside by Jeff Zients, OMB’s deputy director for management. 

Zients spoke today at a conference co-sponsored by George Mason University and the Government Accountability Office.  Zients said OMB will go “from oversight to partnership; from shipping reams of guidance to a two-way dialogue around how we achieve the desired outcome; from transparency not just for accountability but for idea flow and to find the best practices and share them broadly; from ad hoc engagement with stakeholders such as Congress to regular communication.”

He also said that OMB is developing a new set of management goals and is about 80 percent completed and it “may be a few more months until the methodology is final.”

He re-emphasized several points he made at a conference earlier this month, noting that “execution determines success or failure and it’s most challenging in government.”