Center for American Progress

Congress Must Ensure the Executive Branch Performs at Its Best

Congress Must Ensure the Executive Branch Performs at Its Best

Requiring the executive branch to define its priority goals and how it will accomplish them is a key step in the right direction, writes Jitinder Kohli.

The president’s fiscal year 2011 budget includes a new approach to ensure that executive branch departments and agencies focus on performance. (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
The president’s fiscal year 2011 budget includes a new approach to ensure that executive branch departments and agencies focus on performance. (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

The Center on American Progress earlier this year published a report entitled “Golden Goals” that mapped out a new model to improve the performance of the federal government. By setting clear “outcome” goals on what government intends to accomplish, we argue (then as now) that government will be much more focused on achieving real and lasting change for citizens, and better able to ensure that resources are directed to programs that are most effective at accomplishing the goals.

We’re delighted to see like minds in Congress. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) today will present a bill to the House Oversight and Government Reform’s subcommittee on Government Management, Organization and Procurement that seeks to put performance at the heart of how federal government does business. He’s been working on this since his doctoral dissertation at the University of Texas on government performance.

Rep. Cuellar first introduced H.R. 2142 last year when it was focused on codifying the Program Assessment Rating Tool, but tomorrow’s bill will have a different focus. His new legislation will focus squarely on performance goals, embracing the more modern, crosscutting thinking of performance management disciplines. And his timing couldn’t be better.

Why? Because the president’s fiscal year 2011 budget includes a new approach to ensure that executive branch departments and agencies focus on performance. By setting 128 High Priority Performance Goals across federal departments and agencies, the administration defined its priorities—from doubling renewable energy capacity to reducing workplace fatalities. This is an important step. For the first time, the administration set out what it intends to accomplish for society through the programs and initiatives it administers.

Past budgets of past administrations merely set out what departments and agencies wanted in the way of funding and whether their programs should grow or shrink. By setting out clearly what the Obama administration hopes to accomplish, it is telling the American people what they can expect in return for their tax dollars. It is making a set of key promises to citizens on what it will achieve for society.

Rep. Cuellar’s bill can only strengthen this effort and should be welcomed.

Turning back to our set of recommendations in “Golden Goals,” we believe any performance management bill should focus on high-priority performance goals to be the most effective. We would not only require departments and agencies to set goals but also ensure they develop coherent and effective strategies to accomplish these goals.

The executive branch also needs a system so that these strategies are held to account both within the administration and by those outside—in Congress and by the public—so that there is the maximum chance of the goal being accomplished. Here’s more detail on what this kind of legislation focused on high-priority goals should cover:

  • It should require cabinet departments (and other top level agencies) to set no more than five measurable goals within one year of an administration taking office—goals that define the priorities of the administration. Of course, there would need to be some interim arrangements for the current administration.
  • Goals should cover a period of three to five years, although some could have longer-term elements too.
  • Goals should focus on outcomes rather than inputs or outputs, For instance, a goal focused on reducing road deaths would be acceptable, but one focused on increasing spending or personnel engaged in traffic enforcement would not.
  • Goals should not have more than five indicators under them. These should be ones for which regular, timely data is available. Departments should define clearly the difference between accomplishing the goal and failing to do so.
  • Goals should be developed in consultation with the legislature, subagencies, and those affected by the department’s programs.
  • Goals should be crossgovernmental where appropriate, and departments should work together and with Congress to develop strategies for accomplishing those goals and reporting progress.
  • Each goal should have a named owner who is a senior official accountable for accomplishing the goal.
  • For each goal, the lead department should set out annually how it and its agencies and bureaus intend to accomplish the goal. It should set out the contribution that it believes individual programs (and other measures such as rules and tax expenditures) will make toward accomplishing the goal, over what time period, and the evidence base for those statements. This information should be publicly available and should form a prominent part of each department’s budget submission.
  • Progress toward goals should be publicly reported at least every six months for each of the indicators for which data is available.
  • Each department should have a chief performance improvement officer who works closely with goal owners and the Office of Management and Budget to ensure that strategies for goals are likely to be successful in accomplishing the goal.
  • OMB along with chief performance improvement officers and goal owners from departments should formally review progress toward each goal every six months. They should focus on whether departments’ strategies are likely to accomplish the goal, and what corrective action needs to be taken to maximize the chances of successfully accomplishing the goal.
  • Congress’s Government Accountability Office should report on whether the measures adopted under the goals are robust (not subject to gaming and based on available and accurate data), are outcome based (rather than based on inputs or outputs), and are accurate and honest when departments report progress.
  • Congressional committees should be encouraged to review departmental goals and progress toward them.
  • Other agencies and bureaus should continue to adopt goals and report performance against them as they currently do. Where the new high-priority goals cover most of what a department does, the current reporting arrangements under the Government Performance and Results Act 1993 should be replaced with the new arrangements.
  • Chief performance improvement officers should come together with OMB to form a Performance Improvement Council.

Legislation that requires departments to set a small number of priority goals and then ensures they develop strategies to accomplish those goals would help to ensure the American people can better hold government to account. It would help to ensure that Congress and others would be able to ensure government spending was focused on delivering real progress for the American people.

Jitinder Kohli is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress focused on government efficiency and regulatory reform. To read more about our policy analysis and recommendations in these arenas go to our Doing What Works government reform page of our website.

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Jitinder Kohli

Senior Fellow