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Improving Government Performance

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President Barack Obama in January signed the GPRA Modernization Act, the first major government performance reform in 17 years. The law requires all departments and agencies to set high-priority goals, develop a plan to accomplish each goal, and regularly adjust the plan as they go along so the goals are more likely to be met.

“The GPRA Modernization Act may be the biggest little bill that nobody has ever heard of,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) quipped during an event at the Center for American Progress on February 2. Warner was one of the law’s key proponents in the Senate.

Sen. Warner was the keynote speaker for “Transforming Program Performance,” an event on government efficiency sponsored by the Doing What Works team. His speech touched on the difficulty of focusing political attention toward government performance issues.

“When I made the transference to government … there was lots of talk about this subject, but very little real interest from most policymakers and most elected officials,” Warner said. “Government performance is not an area that gets … quick, immediate results, and it’s an area that requires relentless focus,” he said.

As budgets become tighter in the coming years, that focus is more important now than ever. Warner spoke to the importance of regular, data-driven performance assessments to help sort programs that are working from those that aren’t. “Everybody likes to brag about their prized children, the success stories,” Warner said. “But nobody ever wants to talk about … those programs … that actually are underperforming.”

It’s a lesson Warner learned as a freshman senator when he pushed to eliminate 17 troublesome programs identified by both the Obama and Bush administrations. He was met with strong opposition and never managed to cut the programs.

“Even when we cut back, we nibble—we rarely eliminate.” Warner said. “And at some point we need to send some kind of shockwave across the federal government that this time we really mean it.”

Sen. Warner was interviewed by CAP Senior Fellow Jitinder Kohli, who along with CAP Research Associate John Griffith and government reform expert William D. Eggers authored a report released at the event. “The Secret to Programs that Work” presents a series of tools to improve the design and evaluation of government programs, based on input from more than 200 experts. The tools lay out simple questions to guide a policymaker’s scrutiny—whether considering a new program proposal or rethinking funding for an existing program.

“I want to commend CAP on their work here,” Sen. Warner said of the report. “Some of these questions are pretty basic, but … I would … give you 10-to-1 odds that most of these questions have never been asked in a comprehensive way on any new government program.” Warner added that the tools would be particularly helpful during the evaluation of existing government programs.

The event also marked the release of a new publication entitled “Performance Reviews That Work,” authored by CAP’s John Griffith and Gadi Dechter. The piece presents four case studies in effective performance review systems in federal agencies.

After the interview, William Eggers moderated a panel discussion. The panel included three government performance experts: Beth Blauer, StateStat director for the state of Maryland; Jonathan Breul, executive director for the IBM Center for the Business of Government; and Robert Shea, former associate director and chief of staff at the Office of Management and Budget.

Blauer focused on her experience with goal-driven reviews in Maryland. “The goals have to be meaningful to the practitioners,” she said. “If you have goals that are … unrelated to your implementation areas, then they’re absolutely going to be meaningless in implementation.”

Breul said he was “very optimistic” about the new performance framework established by the GPRA Modernization law. “What you’ve got with the act is the Congress and the administration signing up for the proposition again that taking on performance is important. … I think that collective and common effort is terribly important and is a real reason for optimism.”

Eggers then shifted the discussion to the new CAP report. “How does that happen,” he asked the panel, “where you can have multibillion-dollar programs, major pieces of legislation where no one’s actually asked any answer to a lot of these workability questions, and how do we start changing that dynamic?”

“The politics of the matter are always important,” Breul answered. “The difficulty is ironing that out and having some defensible basis to make choices and give policy officials an ability to make the inevitable choices they have to, to go in one direction or another. And frankly, OMB lacks a systematic and credible way of doing that.”

Shea added that it would be a difficult but worthwhile task to institute such a system. He said it will take time for all stakeholders to agree on a common standard, but “if you can persuade people that the evidence of effectiveness or lack of effectiveness is valid, then that’s pretty persuasive.”

This is precisely what the “Secret to Programs that Work” report recommends. The tools provide a counterbalance to political pressures to support certain government programs, grounding the debate in matters of evidence, cost efficiency, and workability.

For full event information click here.

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