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!

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