Office of Management and Budget May Be the Only Government Programs' Evaluator
by Guest Blogger, 4/2/2004
First, GPRA, then PART, and now PAR - government performance measures continue to multiply. More alarming is their morphing from bipartisan efforts that had a role for both the executive and legislative branches; to performance measures dictated by the executive branch in order to control spending to support political objectives.
Under the Government Performance and Results Act (“GPRA”) agencies have been setting performance goals and gauging their success at meeting those goals for nearly a decade. The Bush administration came up with its own tool for executive branch budget preparation and review, the Program Assessment Rating Tool (or "PART") that is used by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to evaluate selected federal programs. On March 4, Rep. Todd Platts (R-PA), Chairperson of the House Government Reform Efficiency and Financial Management Subcommittee, introduced H.R. 3826 the Program Assessment and Results Act (the "PAR" Act), that would require, by law, that OMB and OMB alone assess the performance of all federal programs at least every five years. There are serious problems with creating a law that gives a White House office a license to determine the usefulness and performance of all government programs and use those evaluations as justifications for determining funding levels. PART, as a presidential initiative, is potentially damaging. PAR, as a law, could be much worse.
The Government Performance and Results Act ("GPRA") passed into law in 1993, and is a little over ten years old. This bipartisan effort to improve government performance, as well as to improve the public perception of government performance, requires federal agencies working with OMB and Congress to create strategic plans with long-term goals, develop annual indicators to determine whether goals were being reached, and provide annual performance reports on the results achieved. GPRA has primarily focused on agency-wide evaluations, although actual programs are included.
In reality, GPRA has done very little to improve the public perception of government performance, since public awareness of GPRA is almost non-existent, there is almost no media coverage and very few policy types are engaged. In most agencies GPRA appears to have become primarily a compliance activity and nothing more. Although agencies are required by GPRA to seek and consider stakeholder comments as they prepare their strategic plans, few citizens or nonprofit organizations have even heard of GRPA, let alone provide input. Congress also has shown limited interest in GPRA, even though it is designed to ultimately lead to "performance budgeting," with performance assessments being used as a basis for authorization and appropriation funding levels.
In spite of the lack of public or congressional attention to GPRA, or indeed any obvious sign of its usefulness other than voluminous reports, the General Accounting Office (GAO) continues to evaluate the progress of GPRA in generally favorable terms. In March 2004, the GAO published a ten-year anniversary report finding that GPRA has established "a solid foundation for achieving even greater results." Whatever its faults, GPRA includes both the executive branch and Congress as players, and even allows for some input from stakeholders.
The Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) introduced by the current administration is aimed at determining specific program performance, and is a purely executive branch initiative. The president's 2003 budget contained an entire volume showing ratings of the first 20 percent of government programs that had been evaluated under PART. Within five years, the administration intends to rate 100 percent of all government programs using PART. Since PART is a presidential initiative administered through OMB, it has the potential to be a means of justifying program funding in terms of the administration’s particular ideological slant, without the checks of congressional or public oversight for balance. The GAO noted in a report highlighting testimony before the Subcommittee on Government Efficiency and Financial Management that "PART clearly serves OMB's needs but questions remain about whether it serves the various needs of other key stakeholders." PART, however, will likely disappear with this administration.
Platts' bill, on the other hand, would make evaluation by OMB of all government programs at least every five years a legal requirement. OMB would determine the criteria for what programs should be evaluated in any given year and what programs should be more frequently reviewed. OMB would "evaluate the purpose, design, strategic plan, management, and results of the program, and such other matters as the Director [of OMB] considers appropriate." Just as there has been concern that President Bush's PART evaluation is a way of using program evaluation as a justification for cutting funding from government, PAR evaluation also suffers from a seriously lopsided balance of powers. The executive branch basically gets to decide what government should or should not be doing and how each program should best accomplish its goals. Both PART and PAR lack transparency and any opportunity for public input. OMB lacks the internal staff capacity to do these evaluations, and it is not clear whether OMB would need to expand or whether these evaluations would be contracted out. Finally, there is no good reason to make PART or PAR a law. Every incoming president will likely have ideas on how to better manage government.
"Outcome" based performance measurement is one of a long line of initiatives to quantify, measure, and attempt to "improve" the performance of government. Even when the intent is good, care must also be taken to insure that efforts to reform government protect equity and social justice and incorporate the recognition that government is not just a business, with profit as the goal, and that citizens are more than consumers. In linking government "performance" with budgeting, it is essential that there be a balance of power between the president and his or her vision of government and Congress, and that citizens as the primary stakeholders of a good government are included in the process. The PAR Act has a worthwhile goal - to improve government - but it fails these tests.