Administration Releases Final Round of Federal Program Performance Reviews

The end of an era in government reform? I certainly hope not.

The Bush administration on Friday published its final round of program performance ratings, leaving detailed assessments of more than 1,000 federal initiatives for its successors. [. . .] Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain have both indicated that they would continue to scrutinize program performance. In his Denver speech accepting the Democratic nomination, Obama vowed to go through the budget line by line and cut programs that aren’t working. McCain, the Republican nominee, would freeze discretionary spending for all but essential military and veterans programs until he is able to complete top-to-bottom reviews of all programs and eliminate poor performers. The final Bush administration evaluation indicated that 20 percent of programs are either ineffective or unable to provide meaningful information on their performance. The other 80 percent, OMB assessors concluded, are adequate or better. This round included scores for 67 programs that hadn’t been rated before or had requested a reevaluation. For the first time, agencies administering programs the Government Accountability Office has designated as high-risk outlined steps they are taking to address the watchdog agency’s concerns. That information is included along with the program assessments on Scores have improved significantly since the Bush administration first introduced the Program Assessment Rating Tool. In February 2003, when OMB released the PART grades for the first major chunk of programs it planned to evaluate (20 percent), half couldn’t demonstrate results, and just 44 percent were adequate or better.

It’s certainly appropriate to step back and review PART’s performance at this juncture. In last year’s Annual Privatization Report, University of Illinois-Springfield’s Dr. Patrick Mullen, offered what I found to be a fair and accurate assessment:

OMB is to be commended for developing the PART to bring a renewed focus on individual program-level management and performance. PART has had several successes, including helping structure and discipline OMB’s use of performance information over a broad range of programs, questions, and evidence. PART has also made OMB’s use of performance information more transparent in terms of public reporting of judgments and sources, including explicit recommendations to change management practices and program design in response to PART findings. This has, in turn, stimulated agencies’ interest in performance and budget integration and in improving evidence regarding demonstrating program results. Nevertheless, several challenges have also been evident during five years of PART implementation, such as the consistent application of general principles to diverse cases, which requires interpretation and judgment. Another challenge is for agencies, OMB, and Congress to define agreed-upon program outcomes and reduce complexity to a consensus bottom-line rating. This challenge is exacerbated by the difficulty of obtaining credible information on program effectiveness, which is compounded by limited agency evaluation capacity. If these challenges can be successfully overcome—-which will be an incredibly difficult task to say the least—-OMB will have gone a long way, through its development of PART, in providing performance-based information on individual programs to the full range of actors who implement budget, policy, and management decisions.

The whole article is well worth a read. While PART isn’t perfect, it’s hard to argue with the fact that it’s been an important step forward. The next administration would be well advised to use PART as a central building block of its performance management efforts. [BTW, it’s worth a spin through the GAO High Risk Issue Plans mentioned in the original article. The most recent initiative falling into the “high-risk” category appears to be the troubled Census 2010.] Reason’s Annual Privatization Report 2008 – Federal Update Reason’s Privatization Research and Commentary