Government Is Only as Good as Its Goals

Congress Should Embrace Bill Requiring Agencies to Set and Achieve Clear Goals

Jitinder Kohli explains how a government reform bill before Congress could bring big savings to government by setting agency goals.

President Kennedy said in 1961 that we would put a man on the moon, and we accomplished that goal less than a decade later. It's time for government to set big goals again. (AP/Neil Armstrong)
President Kennedy said in 1961 that we would put a man on the moon, and we accomplished that goal less than a decade later. It's time for government to set big goals again. (AP/Neil Armstrong)

President Kennedy declared in May 1961: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

It was certainly an ambitious goal—the United States was behind in the space race and there was no clear plan for how to accomplish the mission. But the United States put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and Neil Armstrong famously said that he was taking “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The government in this case set a very challenging public goal, invested enormous energy in coming up with a plan that it thought would work, and then constantly adjusted the plan to make sure the goal was accomplished. What’s striking about the accomplishment is the rarity of such goal setting in government.

The House is considering a bill next week sponsored by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) that would make this way of governing the norm. The bill would require each agency to set clear, ambitious goals. Agencies would need to set out which programs contribute to accomplishing each goal, and document the extent to which they do. Agencies would report progress toward the goal through regular performance assessments and explain how they intend to revise their plans in order to accomplish the goals.

This kind of approach, as we have noted before, could transform government performance. Cuellar’s bill provides a strong platform for making government more effective and efficient, and the House should warmly embrace it.

If this new way of working becomes the norm, there is real potential to improve government performance. Clearly defining what goals agencies are trying to accomplish in terms of real world outcomes will bring a new clarity of focus in agencies toward accomplishing these goals. And that clarity will drive improvement in performance.

But the bill could be stronger, and the House should consider the following refinements.

Setting goals at the agency level

It is essential that the federal government set real world, outcome-oriented priority goals at the agency level. The bill requires agencies to develop a plan for each goal that sets out what it will do to accomplish that goal. But as written, the bill seems to seek goals at two different levels—goals are required at the agency level, but there is also a separate requirement for goals at the program level.

This double set of goals could be counterproductive—you could end up with programs that should be contributing to the agencies’ overall goals, but have their own goals that pull in a different direction. There might be so many goals that it would be impossible to know what the priorities are. The bill should require that goals only be set at agency level—and they should reflect agency priorities.

We have previously suggested a limit of five goals per agency or perhaps 100 goals across an administration so that they help define the real priorities. Agencies should set these goals within a year of the president taking office following consultation with Congress and the American people—and the goals should cover a period of three to five years, although some may also have intermediate milestones.

Ensuring that goals will address Americans’ needs

Goals must be high quality. They should be about the real world outcomes that agencies will achieve for the American people. The bill, as written, says that goals should be about outcomes that address the needs of the American people rather than an input (such as resources expended) or an intermediate goal (such as teachers or police hired). This is good wording, but it sits in the part of the bill that talks about program goals rather than agency goals. Again, the language should apply to agency goals. It also needs to be clear that goals can only be revised in exceptional circumstances, and that each goal must have a targeted level of performance.

Setting good goals requires a form of external review. And the bill should also ask the Government Accountability Office or another similar body to comment on whether goals are ambitious, whether they are truly about outcomes, and whether the data is reliable.

Getting the interaction right with the existing Government Performance and Results Act

The House should consider the interaction between Cuellar’s bill and the Government Performance and Results Act passed in 1993. The intention of GPRA was to focus government on improving its performance. The act has certainly increased the amount of performance information available as each government agency now produces strategic plans, annual performance plans, and annual performance reports amounting to many hundreds of pages. But much of this information has little influence over agency decisions.

The reports function more as directories setting out what agencies do rather than tools for setting agency strategy or holding program managers to account. The irony is that GPRA itself does not require such voluminous information—but agencies have interpreted it in a way that creates more work for them than is needed.

There is a real opportunity through the Cuellar bill to sharpen focus on performance—by clarifying that agencies can meet GPRA reporting requirements largely by setting priority outcome goals and then explaining how individual programs contribute to them. If some agency programs do not contribute to agencywide goals, they should still be required to set program specific goals.

Yet we should be wary of legislating too many goals. The administration has also asked agencies to set “high priority performance goals” in addition to GRPA goals. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, has three high-priority performance goals, five goals under GPRA, and seven priorities set by the EPA administrator. But only the first of these are goals as most people would define them: specific targets that need to be achieved by a certain date. The others are merely headings that set out what the agency does. This is a recipe for confusion and does little to improve government performance.

The bill should require that all agency priority goals target real world improvements for the American people, and it should be clear that setting these goals would satisfy the requirement under GPRA.

Getting the interaction with GPRA right is essential. It is important to ensure that federal performance resources produce information that is of genuine use in driving decisions. If we can refocus these resources away from producing long reports that few people read and onto the more important task of improving government performance, there is a real chance that we can meet the bill’s new requirements at no additional cost.

Considering all measures that contribute to accomplishing goals

Lastly, the bill needs to clarify that its focus is not just on the contribution that spending programs make toward agency priority goals. It also needs to capture the impact of tax and regulatory measures, as well as initiatives being led by the states and others.


These are important refinements to strengthen a bill that could help to transform government performance. The potential prize is enormous. If we can change the culture of agencies so that they are focused on clear agency priority goals that matter to the American people, agency resources will be better used to accomplish these goals. Let’s say the bill has the most modest of impacts—perhaps an efficiency gain of one tenth of one percent across the federal budget. Even that would mean more than $3 billion more value for the American people.

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Jitinder Kohli

Senior Fellow