Wednesday, July 30, 2014
I’ve been getting calls from reporters who are asking whether President Obama is interested in government management. But a management innovation he introduced in the early days of his administration is finally taking off.

Background.  Early in the Obama Administration, OMB announced an initiative to create a small handful of High Priority Performance Goals in each agency, as a replacement for the Bush Administration’s Program Assessment Review Tool (PART).  The Bush effort attempted to assess the effectiveness of each of more than 1,000 programs in the government.  The idea behind the new Obama initiative was that there were too many things being tracked and that there should be a much smaller set of priorities, defined by each agency, with meaningful attention applied to them by their leadership.

The Obama Administration then set out to identify agency-level goals, publicly designated leaders for each goal, held quarterly progress reviews, and posted their status on a public website.  While still in a pilot stage, this initiative was picked up by Congress and embedded into the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010.  Re-named as “Agency Priority Goals,” the framework remained as initially envisioned by President Obama. But did this innovation work?

A close observer of federal management initiatives, Dr. Donald Moynihan at the University of Wisconsin, writes that the creation of priority goals seems to have made a difference, based on his analysis of surveys of agency managers conducted by GAO.  He notes: “rational reforms of government are largely the triumph of hope over experience, the Modernization Act may have succeeded in breaking the pattern of failure by combining hope with experience.”

He went on to say: “The Act established a new series of performance routines to encourage performance information use. Our analysis of GAO survey data shows that as federal managers experience those routines, they are more likely to report using performance data to make decisions. Specifically, routines centered around the pursuit of cross-agency priority goals, the prioritization of a small number of agency goals, and data-driven reviews are all associated with higher rates of performance information use.”

But he noted that he had not specifically assessed the roles of the agency priority goal leaders in drawing his conclusions.  However, a newly-released Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the roles and responsibilities of Agency Priority Goal Leaders seems to confirm that this Obama management innovation seems to work.


What Are Agency Priority Goals?  When President Obama’s FY 2015 budget was released in March of this year, agencies refreshed their priority goals for the FY 2014-2015 time period.  There are 89 agency priority goals for 23 major departments and agencies.  Following are some examples of what agencies have designated as top priorities to implement in the next couple of years:

  • Expand broadband services (Commerce)
  • Turn around lowest-performing schools (Education)
  • Secure vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide (Energy)
  • Reduce foodborne illness (Health and Human Services)
  • Reduce homelessness (Housing and Urban Development)
  • Reduce worker fatalities (Labor)
  • Reduce risk of aviation accidents (Transportation)

Each goal has accompanying targets, timetables for action, and quarterly progress reports, all available on  


What – and Who – Are Agency Priority Goal Leaders?  For each goal, agencies have designated goal leaders. According to GAO: “One of the key leadership roles under GPRAMA is the agency priority goal leader.  Individuals in this role are responsible for the achievement of agency priority goals (APG), which are to reflect agencies’ highest priorities.”  Agency goal leaders are to be “individuals authorized to coordinate across their agency and program”  they review goal progress and make course correction as needed.

There were 103 agency priority goals in the two-year period of 2012-2013.  For its report, GAO interviewed 46 of the goal leaders. Goal leaders were at a high level:  7 were agency heads or acting heads; 9 were assistant secretaries or acting; 28 were career; and the remaining 18 were political appointees. 

Michael Huerta, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration – and a priority goal leader -- told GAO that in his opinion “having a goal leader who is also the head of an agency is important because he or she has the authority to engage agency employees to achieve the goal.” A number of other goal leaders told GAO that it was important to balance having someone at a high level with the need for a goal leader who has the time for regular involvement.

In this regard, OMB encourages goal leaders to designate a deputy.  OMB sees a deputy goal leader “as the person who can perform the important function of connection APG leadership and strategy with actual implementation.” However, GAO found that only 35 of the 46 goal leaders they interviewed had a deputy and recommends that all goal leaders make such a designate.

In addition, “about 40 percent of the APGs GAO examined had a change in goal leader, while about 30 percent had a change in the deputy position.” A recent article flagged this as a potential drawback, but so far there haven’t been noticeable ill effects.


Does Designation as Goal Leader Matter?  According to GAO, “A majority of the goal leaders said the goal leader designation had benefits for their APGs.”

Goal leaders told GAO that the “APG designation led to an increased focus on data use.”  They elaborated, noting: “the designation and related requirements elevate the goal, provide additional structure, and communicate the department’s commitment to it.”

The benefits that goal leaders attributed to their work being designated as a priority goal include “making the goal a higher priority and giving it greater focus.” For example, Jim Macrae, the associate administrator for the Department of Health and Human Service’s Bureau of Primary Health Care (and a goal leader), said that the designation “gave it additional importance and leverage in the context of the department’s competing priorities, and helped to facilitate communication and create momentum in working with health centers.”

Deborah Delisle, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education (and a goal leader) “said that her designation as a goal leader has caused her to think more about the goals and how they relate to other aspects of the department’s work and to think more strategically across the whole Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.” 

GAO writes: “Several of the goal leaders we interviewed told us that using performance information was a central part of managing their goals . . . Goal leaders we interviewed reported using performance information to support decision making, monitor performance, and report progress.”  For example, in pursuing the Department of Labor’s goal of reducing worker fatalities, the goal leaders used worker fatality data to target enforcement and education to specific industries.  As a result, the fatality rates for the three targeted industrial sectors either declined or stayed the same for 2012- 2013.

While two-thirds of goal leaders interviewed found value in the designation, GAO found: “About a third of the goal leaders we interviewed told us that the goal leader designation did not affect goal achievement.”  Some said they could not distinguish their role as goal leader from what the work they were otherwise doing.  For example, Mark Johnston, acting assistant secretary at HUD, said that it was more of a description of his continuing role as an agency leader rather than a significant change in responsibility.


Potential Next Steps?  Now that the innovation of targeted agency priority goals, with goal leaders and quarterly reviews, is embedded in agencies, what more might be done?

In concluding its report, GAO said that some fine-tuning of the initiative was needed. It recommended that the goal leaders embed their responsibilities in their individual performance plans better connection with other contributors to the goals, and that the cross-agency performance improvement council embark on providing cross-agency learning of best practices.

This and future administrations may want to use this management innovation more prominently, now that the foundation has been built and tested.  For example, the government might select more challenging goals (e.g., HHS selected “increase the number of health care centers certified as patient-centered medical homes” but not “implement healthcare reform”).  Agencies may also want to determine how to make the process more dynamic.  When the environment shifts dramatically, can an agency drop existing and set new priorities?  For example, I understand the Department of Veterans Affairs was told it had to keep its existing priority goals even though the recent scandal has dramatically shifted the attention of agency leadership to other, more pressing, priorities.  The challenge is how to maintain some continuity, but still ensure that the priority goals are not a “side issue” that leaders must comply with.

In addition, the roles of goal leader and deputy goal leader, at this point, are largely treated in most agencies as an “other duty as assigned.” One possible step may be to symbolically treat the role as a high honor.  For example, a designation certificate signed by the President, and/or an exclusive cross-agency network among the designees (the Australian Public Service has an “APS 200” network of its top civil servants).


Graphic Credit:  Courtesy of Basketman via FreeDigitalPhotos