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But it has been a long road. In 2011, two European academics conducted a meta-analysis of 519 studies on performance-oriented management reforms undertaken across Europe in the previous two decades to determine if they resulted in improved processes, outputs, or outcomes. They concluded the answer was “yes,” but not a resounding “yes.” Their analyses showed 68 percent of the studies found improvements in administrative processes and activities, 44 percent in programmatic outputs, and 53 percent in outcomes.
The European experience somewhat reflects the U.S. experience. The Government Accountability Office’s periodic reviews of federal managers’ use of performance information shows recent increases in the use of performance information to: (1) identify program problems to be addressed (55 percent); (2) take corrective action to solve program problems (54 percent); and (3) develop program strategy (49 percent). But these are process-related, not outcome-related improvements.
But there is progress and hope. The federal government efforts to improve its performance and results of its programs over the past two decades have evolved from a focus on agencies developing a supply of performance information to create annual performance reports, to today’s focus on achieving a handful of strategic goals through the effective use of data to inform real-time decision-making.
New laws, policies, technologies, and techniques have made this shift in focus possible, but more can be done in the area of government performance management to drive change. Government executives seem to be finding ways to more effectively integrate performance management into the decision-making processes and culture of government, within—and increasingly across—agencies and programs.
New Law Serves As Catalyst for Action. The GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 reinvigorates a 20-year-old law – the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA) – which requires agencies to develop strategic plans, measures, and annual reports. The new law formalizes a performance leadership and governance structure than had evolved over the previous two decades. It also requires the development of targeted agency and cross-agency priority goals, regular reviews by senior leaders of progress toward those goals, and government wide reporting of performance via a single web portal.
The key challenge that implementers of this new law will face: the need to ensure that the many procedural requirements in the new law do not overwhelm federal agencies in such a way that agency leaders focus on compliance rather than on improving performance.
Administration Policies Open the Gates to Accountability. In addition to the new GPRA Modernization Act, the Obama administration has placed a great deal of emphasis on ensuring greater transparency and more open access to government data. Agencies have responded with a range of initiatives, but government wide, the administration has created a one-stop website, Data.gov, for agency data sets, and has set forth a series of policies and initiatives to foster greater transparency and openness. Congress has supported this policy initiative via legislation; for example, encouraging greater transparency in government spending data as set forth in the Recovery Act.
This new openness has also engendered the evolution of several new forms of accountability, according to professors Dorothea Greiling and Arie Halachmi. “Traditional accountability arrangements are mostly vertically oriented and so follow hierarchical lines of control,” explain Greiling and Halachmi. They go on to observe that “innovative forms of accountability break with this pattern,” and are more horizontal and bottom-up in nature. They write that new forms of accountability are possible – such as PerformanceStat reviews -- that reflect the new interplay between open data, social media technologies, and the increasing availability of real-time data.
Making Real-Time Analytics Possible. In parallel with the catalyzing push of the new GPRA law and the greater availability of government data, there are a series of new technological advances that offer sense-making techniques and access previously unavailable for large amount of structured and unstructured data. For example, IBM Center author Sukumar Ganapati describes the use of dashboards as one approach to help busy decision-makers to synthesize and understand a wide array of data in ways that make sense. In his report, he describes how the Obama administration has created dashboards on the progress of its information technology investments and its efforts to reduce the government’s real property holdings.
Linking Data to Decision-Making. Data and evidence are increasingly being used in agency decision-making, in part because of greater leadership interest, but also because there are new techniques and capacities available. For example, the new GPRA law requires agencies to hold regular data-driven decision meetings and this new forum has created a demand for useful information.
In addition, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is supporting a series of initiatives to build an evidence- and evaluation-based decision-making capacity in agencies. It has issued several directives to agencies encouraging their adoption of evaluation and analytic approaches and is encouraging the development of such capacities as well.
Conclusion. Studies over the past decade show some progress among mid-level managers in becoming more results-oriented and performance-focused, but recent statutory changes and technological advances have led more senior government leaders in federal agencies to increasingly integrate performance information into their decision-making processes. This has contributed to better choices that are rooted in facts and evidence. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development set a goal on increasing the number of families housed rather than focusing on reducing the number of vacant public housing units. This led to improved housing outcomes.
However, increasing evidence-based decision-making among senior leaders will likely not be enough to change agency cultures. Agency leaders will need to create and embed both individual as well as organizational incentives to be more results-oriented and performance-focused. Employees on the front line need to see how what they do on a day-to-day basis makes a difference for their agency’s mission. For example, increasing their access to real-time performance information may be one approach. When this has been done in some pioneering agencies, this has allowed data-driven problem-solving to occur on the front line, in the field. Finding these kinds of levers for culture change – which will likely vary from agency-to-agency -- will be a challenge to both policy makers as well as agency leaders, but when done well, they can have a lasting effect.
Read the other blog posts on Six Trends Driving Change in Government: