Congress may have rushed forward toward adjournment by giving billionaires a refreshing tax break, but it also actually took the time to help good government by upgrading the creaky Government Performance and Results Act. It was high time.
The Senate approved the upgrade last week by unanimous consent, leaving the House to act on Tuesday in the final seconds before heading home for the holidays. They did. And though the bill won't make anyone's top ten list for management reforms of the past 100 years, it does signal potential consensus on the need to hold the federal government accountable for what works and what doesn't. And it may well be the most important statute in laying the founding for the top reforms that might come in the next two years.
The act is the brainchild of Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), an up-and-coming player on government reform. He's got all the right tickets and credibility to build the comprehensive reform package our federal bureaucracy so desperately needs. He's a former governor, represents a large chunk of the federal employees who work in D.C., and has the smarts to imagine a new way of doing business. As a member of the Senate Budget Committee, he's ready to use his position to find "scorable savings" that would simultaneously improve government performance and save money.
The bill isn't his alone--Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) put their mark on it too, and Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) signed on. A quorum of Democrats working together on government reform these days is something of a miracle. If only President Barack Obama would come out of his government-management-is-oh-so-boring cocoon and take an interest.
The bill's mission is short and to the point: Identify and possibly eliminate duplicative federal programs, and harvest the tax savings at budget time. The bill uses the old Government Performance and Results Act (GRPA) as the foundation for cracking down on needless overlap.
For those unfamiliar with this little-known statute, the original GPRA is commonly known as the Results Act--almost certainly because no one can pronounce GPRA (gip-rah for some, gyp-ya for others). Widely sold in the early 1990s as the way to discipline bureaucracy, it has done almost anything but. Its major contributions appear to have been a ton of useless paperwork, lost concentration and a long shelf of reports that don't matter much when it comes to anything that matters.
Warner is quite right that the federal agenda is filled with duplication and overlap, including dozens of programs for employment training, food safety, environmental quality, workplace conditions...the list goes on and on. No wonder citizens don't understand where to go for help, why industry studiously exploits gaps in regulations, and how the federal government could squander billions on separate overhead systems for each program.
The measure should improve federal performance management in several ways. First, agencies will be required to actually explain the measures they choose, including at least modest justification. Although these measures aren't subject to further scrutiny by, say, the Government Accountability Office, Congressional Budget Office or each agency's Office of Inspector General, at least it's a good first step.
Second, agencies would have to show how their programs actually work compared with previous years and against hoped-for outputs. Note that the key term here is "outputs," not "activities." Activities only measure, well, activities, and can be easily manipulated to show great effort.
Case in point? The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency gamed its data last year to hit a new record, in part by encouraging its agents to push bodies over the border through whatever means possible. As the Washington Post discovered through emails and interviews, the pressure was intense. "They had everyone burning the candle at both ends to reach 390,000," one official told the Post. Now that's bad measurement that undermines faithful execution of the laws and weakens accountability. The bill rightly moves the needle from activities like that to actual large-scale outputs such as a safer country, cleaner air, safer food, more jobs and less discrimination.
Finally, the bill pushes transparency to a new level. Performance goals will no longer be buried in long, unreadable reports. They will be released online in short summaries, and with clear descriptions of exactly what happened. These reports will lead to a government-wide digest of priority goals that can be used to identify programs that work and those that don't. More importantly, the information can be combed to find the overlap and senseless inefficiencies that undermine the achievement of priority goals.
That's when Congress and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should start cutting, collapsing and consolidating. If they don't care, the new reporting won't matter. But with Warner pushing from his Budget Committee post, the appropriators just might start demanding better performance. It's a tall order, but none of the three Democrats are shy about taking action.
The OMB is also on the case. It's developing better performance measures, demanding more transparency and pressing agencies to link their budget requests to clear goals. Led by President Obama's chief performance officer, Jeff Zients, and his able associate, Shelley Metzenbaum, OMB is ready to start holding agencies accountable.
The bill isn't the biggest reform of all time, but it provides enough momentum to spark comprehensive action next year. The Congressional Budget Office can't and won't score it, if only because the office just doesn't know enough about management to apply its calculators. But the savings are there for the taking. Less paperwork, more savings, better service? It was a good first step toward the hoped-for comity on government management reform that just might emerge in the new Congress.