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Goals for Federal Government

A Quiet Revolution Is Taking Place Under a New Law

When President Barack Obama sends his federal budget proposal for fiscal year 2013 to Congress next week, few will notice the “Delivering High Performance Government” chapter of the Analytical Perspectives document that accompanies the budget proposal. But that is where a quiet revolution in government could well take place.

Under a new law—the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act—passed by Congress in January of last year, the administration will set out, for the first time, a set of government-wide goals. These goals could transform the way government works. Why? Because clarity about what the federal government is trying to achieve sharpens the focus within agencies and incentivizes them to target resources toward those programs that are most likely to contribute to accomplishing those goals.

If this goal-setting process is to be successful, however, the administration should ensure that:

  • The number of goals is limited
  • The goals are genuine priorities for the president
  • The goals focus on issues that matter to the American people

In this way, goals can have a significant impact on the performance of agencies. But before we look at how these three principles should apply to the U.S. budget process to get these results, let’s first detail why good goals matter to federal government budgetary policymaking.

The power of good goals

As we have written before, defining a clear set of ambitious goals can have a transformative impact on government performance. If government is clear about what its objectives are, it can then focus management energy and financial resources on accomplishing these goals.

A strong set of goals can also be a powerful way for government to communicate with voters. Cynicism about Washington is high, with less than 10 percent of Americans trusting government to do what is right all or most of the time. But in a poll commissioned by the Center for American Progress, 83 percent of Americans said that they believed government would improve its performance if there were clear goals for agencies measured by real-world outcomes.

The British experience

In Britain, for example, Labour Party leader Tony Blair stood for election in 1997 with five pledges to the British people. His five promises were prominent in the election campaign, with the Labour Party handing out credit-card-sized pledge cards featuring the five promises (see picture above). In effect, he was promising the country a deal: “Vote for me, and here are the things that will improve.” The strategy worked as Blair won in a landslide in 1997.

Five years later the power of the pledges—in focusing the government and its message—was undeniable. “The five pledges … have all now been met,” the BBC reported in a major research report. And it was hardly surprising that Prime Minister Blair led the Labour Party to another landslide victory in 2001.

The American opportunity

The Obama administration has already introduced goals at the agency level. In its budget published in February 2010, the administration announced 128 High Priority Performance Goals for agencies covering fiscal years 2010 through 2012. Some agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, have shown considerable commitment to ensuring that their goals are accomplished. Next week’s budget will include an update of these agency-level goals, which are also now required by law.

But the more important announcement will be on the goals that cut across agencies—the so-called Federal Government Priority Goals. The law requires the administration to adopt goals focused on outcomes covering a limited number of cross-cutting policy areas. (There is also a requirement to adopt goals focused on management issues such as human resources.)

In revealing the cross-cutting policy goals next week, the administration has a real opportunity to use them to build a greater bond with the American people, and also increase focus in government. But if the goals are to succeed, three things need to hold true.

First, there should not be too many cross-government policy goals. The power of Blair’s pledges was that there were five of them, so it was easy to communicate them to the public and to agency staff in government. Even though the Blair government had other goals too, the five pledges were clearly the most important. The Obama administration should ensure that it does not have too many goals. Ideally, there would be between 5 and 10 goals.

Second, the goals should represent the real priorities of the president. Agencies will take goals most seriously if they believe they are important to the man in charge. If President Obama is personally vested in the goals, he can use them as part of his core message to the American people. By focusing the message on how government can make a difference, the president can also help rebuild trust in government at a time when many in the country see Washington’s partisanship as evidence of its ineffectiveness.

Third, the goals should focus on things that really matter to the American people rather than the processes of government. In the first set of agency goals, the quality varied. The best goals focused on real-world outcomes such as reducing homelessness or improving high school graduation rates, but there were also goals such as increasing the white-collar crime caseload handled by the Department of Justice by 5 percent. The new law requires regular reporting on progress against the goals. The American people will be most interested to see government agencies making a difference to things that matter to them.

If the Obama administration adopts a good set of cross-cutting government policy goals in its forthcoming budget announcement, then it could underpin a genuine revolution in the way the federal government operates. In general, voters believe that Washington is inefficient and ineffective, but a strong set of goals could change that prevailing opinion. Goals that define what Washington will achieve for America could form the foundation of a new relationship between the Obama administration and the American people if the results are fair, effective, and efficient upon successful delivery.

Jitinder Kohli is Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress on the Doing What Works project.