How to make performance management work

Back in 2010, Congress passed the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA). The goal was simple, strengthen performance management in agencies. That sounds simple, but in the government culture it is hard to focus on outcomes over results.

Grant Thorton and the Partnership for Public Service teamed up to the look at the effects of GPRA three years later. Robert Shea is a Principal in Grant Thornton's Public Sector Office. Shea told me on the DorobekINSIDER program that the GPRA law created Performance Improvement Officers.

"There has been great progress in the last three years. The law also required the appointment of a Chief Operating Officer. Generally that is the Deputy Secretary at agencies. The law also forces agencies to focus on their priority goals instead of across the board goals," said Shea

  • Agencies were asked to meet quarterly to review data to review data, see how they are doing and adopt strategies to improve. Those things seem to be making a big difference.
  • PIOs tell us that focusing on a limited amount of goals is helping them prioritize. Quarterly meetings does get top leaders to make critical decisions about what they need to do to enhance their performance and the COO really does get performance management activities heft that they might not have had in the past.

Why are performance metrics difficult to implement?

"It is a lot easier to count what you do than what you achieve. Of course in the private sector you’ve got one of the principal measures of performance, the profit you make. We don’t have that in the public sector. Therefore it is essential that we focus people on the outcomes we are trying to achieve so that people aren’t just satisfied with coming to work everyday and what we really want people to focus on is what outcomes they are achieving. How much progress are you making keeping people in housing or making sure the economy is strong? Making our streets and communities safe from terrorism. It is very difficult to connect what you do on a daily basis to those outcomes, but we’ve been plotting at this for about 20 years now, and trying to experiment about what works and what doesn’t. I think we are making progress but we still aren’t where we need to be," said Shea.

What's missing?

A couple of gaps they found in the survey of PIOs:

  • Connecting performance to the budget. We still don’t do a very good job telling Congress and the American people what the impact from our budget requests will be.
  • We don’t have a very good relationship with the Congress as far as performance management is concerned. In fact, PIOs say there have been very few efforts made to reach out to the Congress on performance management.
  • We’ve invested a lot in long-term rigors evaluation and PIOs tell us those efforts aren’t always very well integrated in the performance management activities of an agency. We could do a better job linking those two.

Data to performance

"One of the gaps in the skills of their workforce is data analytics. They also could do a better job of depicting the data in a way that makes it useful for decision makers," said Shea.

Performance Management at all levels:

"Program managers and leadership in sub-components at agencies have lots of other responsibilities on top of performance management. But those managers at every level in the agency are the ones who are going to be critical to the success of performance management. They are the ones that need to make use of the information so that a performance culture takes hold. So the recommendation is to do what you can to make sure that program managers start to crave and use the data we are producing," said Shea.

Collaboration across government

"There is no program in the federal government that is trying to achieve a result alone. GAO has well documented the extent of overlap and duplication across government agencies. So nobody is doing performance management in isolation. They need to work together with stakeholders across government and up and down government at the state and local level. So the recommendation is that OMB can facilitate this cross-agency collaboration. That to date really hasn’t been done," said Shea.

Connect the budget to performance

"The most important thing agencies can do is consult with their appropriators so that the information that they are providing facilitates and helps those folks make decisions. Once they have begun that conversation, they really need to show clearly what improvement or deterioration to performance budget requests are going to have. So if they are requesting 10% more what is the corresponding improvement in performance we can expect from that investment? Likewise if they are requesting less funding than in a previous year, how can we expect performance to deteriorate? Or what steps are we taking to mitigate that budget reduction so we don’t have a degradation in performance. Agencies have an opportunity to tell a story about the impact that budget reductions will have and what tradeoffs they are being forced to make as a result of this fiscal constraint," said Shea.

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