What Government Can Learn from the Preakness

Congress Should Embrace Bill Requiring Federal Agencies to Adopt Clear Goals

Jitinder Kohli and Robert J. Shea argue Congress should embrace a bill requiring federal agencies to set clear goals.

Lookin At Lucky, left, wins ahead of First Dude, right, during the 135th Preakness horse race at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on May 15, 2010. Horse racing teams are clear about what they want to accomplish: winning the race. Government needs to be similarly clear about what it intends to achieve. (AP/Rob Carr)
Lookin At Lucky, left, wins ahead of First Dude, right, during the 135th Preakness horse race at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on May 15, 2010. Horse racing teams are clear about what they want to accomplish: winning the race. Government needs to be similarly clear about what it intends to achieve. (AP/Rob Carr)

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Last weekend at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, 12 horses lurched from the Preakness starting gates, each with an owner, trainer, and rider behind them (or on top of them). Each had a clear goal: winning the race and demonstrating to the 100,000 people present what they could achieve. This clarity of goal meant that the last few months were about nothing else for the teams. They trained relentlessly to win the race.

The Center for American Progress argued in its February report “Golden Goals for Government Performance” that government needs to be similarly clear about what it is trying to accomplish. That clarity will focus agencies on what matters most to the public. And it will help us distinguish programs and initiatives that are most effective and merit growth from those that contribute least and are candidates for reform.

This week, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform is set to consider legislation, H.R. 2412, sponsored by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) that could significantly improve government performance by having agencies and departments adopt clear goals. The bill was strengthened by the Subcommittee on Government Management, Organization, and Procurement, and would require:

  • Administration agencies and departments to set goals for what they intend to accomplish. Goals should be cross agency and department where sensible.
  • Agencies to candidly report to Congress and the public on how they are progressing toward the goals and what their strategies are for achieving them.
  • The Office of Management and Budget to monitor agency progress on a regular basis.
  • Each agency to have a performance improvement officer responsible for driving improvement across the agency. The administration would also be required to set up a performance improvement council that brings all the officers together.

This is a strong bill and similar to one the Center for American Progress called for last week. By enacting it, Congress would help embed a much stronger culture of performance management into the federal government. Congress should take this necessary step and require meaningful goal setting that focuses squarely on performance and clear outcomes.

The legislation will set in place a process by which taxpayers will see the key outcomes government agencies intend to accomplish. And lawmakers will be better able to measure whether scarce federal resources are being most effectively marshaled to achieve these outcomes.

Rep. Cuellar and the committee have laid out the right path, but we believe there are some refinements that support this bill’s direction and are worth considering as it moves through the legislative process.

First, the bill talks about the administration adopting “high-priority goals.” This is important as one of the benefits of adopting goals is that they help define the most important things an agency is trying to accomplish. There is, however, a natural tendency for every part of a government agency to want to see its work in the goals that are adopted—and that can lead to ill-defined goals or too many of them. We therefore recommend that the bill include a limit of five high-priority goals per agency or perhaps a ceiling across government of no more than 100 goals. These are priorities, after all.

Second, the bill is clear that it wants goals that have “high direct value to the public.” We agree and believe the bill should be even more specific. It should require that goals reflect important outcomes that agencies are trying to accomplish for the American people rather than government agency inputs or outputs. For instance, goals should focus on reducing crime rates or increasing educational attainment by children rather than increasing police officers or reducing class sizes. While more police and smaller class sizes are good things they are not ends in themselves, and agencies should be encouraged to find the most effective strategies to deliver outcome-based goals.

Third, it is important that administrations adopt goals early so that the goals permeate their work and Congress and the public are able to invest in strategies that contribute to achieving priority goals. We think goals should be adopted by administrations soon after they take office—no later than February in the year after a president takes office. Goals should cover a period of three to five years, though they may also feed into longer-term goals. And each goal should have a clear “pass mark” that defines the performance shift necessary to accomplish the goal. In addition, a named senior official in the administration should be accountable for achieving each goal. Once goals are finalized they should only be revised in exceptional circumstances. We believe the language in the bill should be tightened to clarify these points.

Fourth, agencies should be asked to assess the contribution that each of their programs or other interventions—such as tax or regulatory measures—is likely to make toward accomplishing each goal. Agencies should be required to establish how much they expect each program to contribute to the goals, over what time frame, and why. This should not be a one-off paper exercise. As time progresses, agencies should review progress toward the goals and establish whether programs are having the impact they had hoped.

This process should lead agencies to constantly adjust their plans to maximize the chances of the goal being successfully accomplished. This is essential as agencies need to continually evaluate the impact their programs and other interventions are having on accomplishing the goals. Information gleaned from this analysis will also be essential in helping them establish whether programs should be expanded, reformed, or eliminated.

Lastly, the bill rightly proposes that the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, play a role in reviewing the legislation’s operation. This is important, and we think the GAO should play a stronger role. It should review agencies’ individual goals to ensure they are outcome focused and meet the bill’s criteria. Further, GAO should review what individual agencies are doing to accomplish their individual goals, and in doing so highlight and disseminate good practice in agencies. GAO should also review the bill’s operation to see if there is duplication with the Government Performance and Results Act, and make recommendations for consolidation as necessary.

The Cuellar bill is a good piece of legislation as is. But with these revisions, the bill currently before the House would go from “good to great” (to borrow aphrase from management writer Jim Collins). The Office of Management and Budget and agencies have made enormous progress over the last decade investing in a performance improvement culture. By building on this good work, this bill could herald a new chapter in performance management and lead to a further sea change in the functioning of government.

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

Robert J. Shea led the Performance Improvement Initiative at the Office of Management and Budget during the Bush administration. Prior to that, he was counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. He is now a director in Grant Thornton’s Global Public Sector team and has extensively published on government performance issues.

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Jitinder Kohli

Senior Fellow