Thursday, March 24, 2011
Obama signed the GPRA Modernization Act in January. While OMB has yet to issue any formal guidance to agencies on what they should do, there has been a flurry of conferences, forums, and seminars that have focused on the new law’s meaning and intent.

In the past month, I’ve participated in more than a half dozen forums related to the new law, and gotten feedback from colleagues about the forums that I just wasn’t able to make in person. The most recent of these was a couple days ago, at the Brookings Institution.  According to Government Executive’s Emily Long, OMB’s associate director for performance, Shelley Metzenbaum, said agencies are moving forward at different paces but that all have been asked to meet ambitious goals and are being held accountable for results

Last week, there were several GPRA Mod events, with the highlight being the hearing held by the Senate Budget Committee’s Task Force on Government Performance, chaired by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA).  At that hearing, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro and John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress testified.

Following are some highlights from these various events, organized by some of the common themes:

The Value of the New Law

Dodaro said:  “GPRAMA establishes a new framework aimed at taking a more crosscutting and integrated approach to focusing on results and improving government performance. . . Our recent report on duplication overlap, and fragmentation highlights a number of areas where a more crosscutting approach is needed – both across agencies and within a specific agency.”   Examples from the report he flagged included:

  • Employment and training programs (47 programs, $18 billion)
  • Military health system (integrating common administrative, management, and clinical functions isn’t enough)
  • Teacher quality programs (82 programs; $4 billion)

Relatedly, Podesta said:  “I believe the GPRA Modernization Act, if implemented well, can help us root out ineffective spending, cut operational waste, and improve results for the American People.”

The Importance of Leadership in Implementation

At a forum in early February, Senator Warner spoke about the new law:  “This is the biggest little bill nobody ever heard of. . . . if we implement this the right way. . . .” it could be one of the most significant pieces of legislation from the 111th Congress.  The key is someone senior in the White House who provides relentlessly focus and repetitive reporting. 

The Role of Congress

Senator Warner also said at the February forum: “I hope to ensure ongoing interest in Congress. . . we have to have an ongoing congressional role . . .there may be a moment in time . . . .”  He is optimistic that the fiscal crisis will drive institutional changes, even in Congress.

In his testimony before Warner’s taskforce a month later, Podesta said:  “. . . we need new tools to enlist the public in evaluating performance and providing input into the decision-making process. . . . This task force should work with the administration to make sure OMB’s new website provides more and better tools for public engagement.”

Cross-Agency Goals

The new law requires for the first time that OMB develop a small handful of long-term cross-agency priority goals, in consultation with at least a dozen named congressional committees, at least every two years.  There is no precedent for this.  It will require creating new institutional procedures in both OMB and Congress.  How this will evolve will be of interest to a wide range of observers!  Similarly, agencies will need to consult with Congress as well as OMB on their priority goals as well.

In his testimony before Senator Warner’s taskforce, Podesta, said:  “The new law also asks for cross-government goals, which I believe is its most important feature.  President Obama should use this opportunity to communicate what his entire administration is trying to accomplish, setting no more than five goals that are presented as a contract between himself and the American people. . . . Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair did something similar to great effect.”

He also raised the issue of how are cross-agency goals are set and met: “From my experience in the White House [he was President Clinton’s chief of staff], I know how difficult it can be to coordinate action across government.  Indeed, this requirement for cross-agency goals is probably the most difficult in the entire act – and yet one of the most important.  This task force should track whether agencies and OMB are working well together to set and meet these goals.”

Lessons in Goal-Setting

Podesta also said:  “Goals should be ambitious and connect to the American people:  How is government improving our lives and advancing the national interest?”  He went on to note that:  “Most agency high-priority goals leave much to be desired.  Many are too technical and focus on activities over results. . . . .The current administration wisely asked agencies to narrow their number of goals.  But there are still too many so-called “High Priority Performance Goals”  -- 128 to be exact – and many are decipherable only to people inside government.  Fewer, more resonant goals would raise their profile and better communicate government priorities to the public. . . . These goals should state in clear, quantifiable terms what the agency will achieve for the American people and how much money it will save by cutting waste in procurement, information technology, and other operations.”

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Do you know of other upcoming events focusing on the implementation of the new GPRA law?  I know of the AGA Federal Performance Conference on May 3-4.  But I’m sure there are others!

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