OMB Wants More Data on Government's Performance
The Office of Management and Budget will release new performance guidelines Wednesday to collect deeper evaluations of federal offices and programs.
The new Program Evaluation Initiative is voluntary but will help agencies make “evidence-based policy decisions” about what’s working and what needs improvement, White House Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients said in an interview Tuesday.
“This administration is very committed to delivering value, and that means we should be investing in programs that work. And programs that aren’t working, we either need to fix or we need to terminate them,” Zients said.
If you're confused by what this all means, let's try a different sort of explanation. Pretend the government is a news organization that only has only two ways to measure its success: circulation and Web site traffic data. Those numbers don't tell the whole story, however. (What's bringing all those new online readers?) So the news boss decides to hire an outside firm to get those answers, perhaps through readership surveys. The reader feedback provides editors with detailed answers and explanations. (They're coming because they love the Eye!) And that data can inform a decision about whether to continue or cancel certain comics, features, even columnists. (Hey!)
That's basically what the Obama administration is trying to do here: trying to get a fuller report on what's working and what's not.
Another key excerpt from the guidelines:
"Although the federal government has long invested in evaluations, many important programs have never been formally evaluated -- and the evaluations that have been done have not sufficiently shaped federal budget priorities or agency management practices," the new guidelines will state. "Many agencies lack an office of evaluation with the stature and staffing to support an ambitious, strategic, and relevant research agenda. As a consequence, some programs have persisted year after year without adequate evidence that they work. In some cases, evaluation dollars have flowed into studies of insufficient rigor or policy significance. And Federal programs have rarely evaluated multiple approaches to the same problem with the goal of identifying which ones are most effective."
“We’re working to create a system that’s actually used by senior decision-makers,” Zients said, noting the Program Evaluation Initiative will build on the Bush administration’s Program Assessment Rating Tool. Critics argue PART failed to properly track government performance.
Participating agencies will have to post program evaluations online as part of the administration’s ongoing openness and transparency efforts. OMB will also bring together various agency leaders to share their good ideas on how to perform evaluations. But perhaps most importantly, agency leaders will also get extra funding to perform those deeper program evaluations that produce proof of their effectiveness.
"Rigorous, independent program evaluations can be a key resource in determining whether government programs are achieving their intended outcomes as well as possible and at the lowest possible cost," OMB will state in the guidelines. "Evaluations can help policymakers and agency managers strengthen the design and operation of programs. Ultimately, evaluations can help the administration determine how to spend taxpayer dollars effectively and efficiently -- investing more in what works and less in what doesn’t."
“It’s that kind of more in-depth rigorous evaluation that holds the best promise for improving program performance and telling you where best to invest your dollars,” said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“Assuming that the administration and Congress make some additional resources available, I think that those investments will pay for themselves many times over,” he said.
The administration also hopes the new plans convince agency leaders to think more about a program’s performance and effectiveness as they prepare budgets, instead of afterward.
“This is forward-leaning, understanding what works and what doesn’t work,” Zients said. “It’s not a retrospective justification. Instead, it’s the right way to be thinking about how we invest our scarce resources.”
Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, applauded the administration’s efforts, but cautioned that OMB will have to convince managers the guidelines will actually help them succeed.
“Until we can get to the point where managers view this as something that helps them do their job better, we’re not going to achieve what we need,” Stier said.
Zients said that shouldn’t be an issue.
“Everyone’s interests are aligned. We want to understand what’s the best steward of the taxpayer dollars,” he said.
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