"PART" And The Federal Budget

There has been little public or media attention to the “Program Assessment Performance Tool” (PART) developed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), even though its explicit and primary purpose is to evaluate and tie program “performance” to budget appropriations. OMB Is also taking this effort very seriously. Why this sudden renewed attention to “government performance?”

It is instructive that one of the questions included in the original PART tool, “Is the federal role critical?” hints strongly at an underlying political motivation – namely, to shift more and more federal responsibility to states or private entities. While the question was removed from the PART because it was “too subjective and could vary depending on philosophical or political viewpoints” (not to mention the unlikelihood that any program would guarantee its demise by answering “no”), the nonprofit community should remain alert as PART is used and incorporated into the President’s 2004 budget. OMB Director Daniels still seems to like the question about the federal role. He noted in a July 2002 memorandum to agency heads that, in spite of the subjective/political nature of the question, many favorable comments were received that “this question is so important that it should not only be retained, but be elevated in importance in the overall score.” He promises that “[t]he appropriateness of the Federal Role in addressing national interests, problems or needs will be specifically examined during OMB’s Fall Budget Reviews,” even while it has been removed from the PART.

PART itself seems to be an effort by the President to “fast track” the more complicated and iterative Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) process to quickly arrive at a simple rating of government programs that can be used for budget recommendations. The President’s 2003 budget included a red, green and yellow light analysis. PART is intended to remedy the obvious subjectivity and broadness of that designation (even though one of the major concerns expressed about PART is its own degree of subjectivity). The shrinking of government is a long-standing conservative goal and PART -- along with tax cuts, demolition of regulatory standards, and increasing efforts to devolve federal responsibilities -- may be one of this Administration’s tools to accomplish that goal.

PART was designed under the “Budget and Performance Integration Initiative,” one of five Presidential management initiatives, and its stated intention is to build upon GPRA, although there remains some confusion about how, exactly, it relates to GPRA. The object of the PART is to get consistent and objective performance data from government programs and use that information to make budget decisions. One of the objectives of GPRA, passed in 1993, is to improve Congressional decision making through the provision of objective information about the effectiveness and efficiency of Federal programs and spending. But that is only one of the objectives -- the others include improving the confidence of the American people in the capability of the Federal government, improving Federal program effectiveness and public accountability, helping Federal managers improve service delivery, and improving the internal management of the Federal government. In the worst case scenario, PART is a tool designed to by-pass the broad effort of GPRA and go directly to making budget decisions based on a simplified measure of “performance.”

The PART consists of six questionnaires designed for different government activities -- competitive grant programs, block/formula grant programs, regulatory-based programs, capital assets and service acquisition programs, credit programs, research and development programs, and direct federal programs. Essentially, it consists of “yes” and “no” questions, although in the “results” section of the tool there are some additional gradations. OMB initially tested the instrument on a few programs in the spring, and it was then reviewed by an independent (although slanted and lacking in a public interest nonprofit voice) advisory council, the Performance Measurement Advisory Council. OMB made some revisions in the tool as a result of this review process. Copies of the PART instruments and instructions are on the OMB website. It is now being used by a selected 20% of all government programs/activities as they prepare their 2004 budget submissions. These programs amount to $480 billion, or roughly one quarter of Federal spending. A complete list of all the programs to be assessed for FY 2004 can be found through the previous link. There is little indication of how these programs were chosen, but many of them are targeted to low-income and vulnerable populations, including:

  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security Disability Benefits
  • The National School Lunch Program
  • All vocational and adult education programs
  • SAMHSA Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness, Children's Mental Health Services and Substance Abuse Treatment Programs
  • The State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)
  • Housing Vouchers and Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance, Elderly Housing Grants, and Disabled Housing Grants
  • OJP Residential Substance Abuse Treatment and Drug Courts
  • The Air Toxics Program, Superfund Removal Program, Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, and Pollution Prevention Research

The programs will be evaluated as “effective,” “moderately effective,” “minimally effective,” and “ineffective” for different sections of the PART, with assignment of an overall score of “effective” or “ineffective.” Exactly how scores will be released and in what detail and form is still under discussion. While Daniels has made assurances that the PART scores will not be used, in and of themselves, to slash program budgets, given the underlying ideological position of the Administration, it is wise to take such assurances with a grain of salt.

The Performance Measurement Advisory Council meetings are open to the public (although the public is not allowed to speak.) The next meeting will likely be in February, and meeting announcements are published in the Federal Register. The OMB website page also contains more information about PART and the President’s Management Agenda, and also occasionally solicits comments from the public. Neither comments submitted by OMB Watch after the first meeting, nor any other indications of public/stakeholder comments, appear on the OMB webpage. We will continue to report on this issues, and encourage nonprofit attention as the PART is implemented.

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