March 22, 2000
Thank you for requesting written testimony from me for your hearing on the impact of the Government Performance and Results Act's (GPRA/Results Act) implementation on the legislative process. I must stress, however, that the views I express are entirely my own, and should not be construed as representing any official position of The Heritage Foundation.
You will find that I've taken this opportunity to comment on this law within a larger political context. This testimony reviews congressional efforts to address the federal government's performance. It also attempts to lay out an agenda and decision-making framework that might transcend the partisan gridlock that now prevails in Washington using transparent performance as a foundation for reform.
Opinion polls consistently show low public trust and confidence in the federal government. The public has low expectations of federal performance and thinks that a high proportion of tax dollars is wasted. For example:
A poll asked: "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right--just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?" Only 36 percent of respondents said "most of the time" while 58 percent said "only some of the time."
A survey found that 64 percent of the public view the government as "inefficient and wasteful." Only 48 percent believe that the government is "run for the benefit of all people."
According to a survey of likely voters, 84 percent of respondents believe the federal government wastes at least 5 cents of every dollar it spends; 26 percent believe at least 25 cents of every dollar is wasted; and 19 percent believe the government wastes half of what it takes in.
When asked what best described their perceptions of the federal government, only 6 percent of those polled chose "efficient" and only 5 percent chose "responsive to the will of the people."
A recent survey performed for the federal government itself, which was spearheaded by Vice President Gore's National Performance Review (NPR), found similar results. The survey asked about "customer satisfaction" with a number of federal agencies. Ostensibly, satisfaction levels for federal agencies were, in the aggregate, only slightly below those of private-sector service organizations. However, quality and performance expectations for federal agencies were much lower than for private-sector organizations.
The public's attitude toward the federal government seems to be more one of frustration than anger. Americans want the federal government to work, but don't think that it does. Low public confidence in the federal government contrasts with the generally positive view most people have of their own well-being and the strong state of the economy.
No one knows with any degree of confidence what most federal agencies and programs are accomplishing with $1.7 trillion, and Washington decision-makers spend little time or effort trying to find out. To the extent federal agency and program performance is scrutinized at all, it traditionally has been judged by process and activities rather than results.
Before passage and implementation of the Results Act, an agency like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had been measured by how many regulations it issued and how many inspections it conducted, not whether these actions resulted in safer workplaces. Job training programs tended to be measured by how many grants they awarded and how many people they trained, not how many of their trainees actually got and retained jobs.
Washington needs to get away from abstract rhetoric and political posturing and get back to the basics of running the federal government in a responsible, business-like, and common-sense way. This, in turn, requires concentrating on what the federal government needs to do for its citizens and ensuring that it performs these functions well.
Specifically, this testimony suggests an agenda that consists of the following key steps:
Focus on real concerns that matter to the American public.
Develop approaches to those concerns that can get real results.
Concentrate federal efforts on what the federal government is best suited to do.
Ensure that the federal government has the capacity and resources to carry out these efforts successfully.
Systematically and continuously examine what the federal government does and how it does it with the above principles in mind.
HOW WASHINGTON OPERATES TODAY
Government Performance and Results Act
In 1993, Congress passed, and the President signed, the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA). Passed with bipartisan support and the Clinton Administration's stamp of approval, the Act's power lies in its focus on the outcomes of federal programs--the intended results for taxpayers. The Results Act codified Washington's desire to hold federal programs accountable for their performance and their use of taxpayer dollars. Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), at a hearing in June 1997, said,
If properly implemented, the Results Act will assist Congress in identifying and eliminating duplicative or ineffective programs. We intend to monitor compliance with the Results Act at every step of the way to ensure that agencies are providing us with the information necessary to do our job, spending the taxpayers' money more wisely.
The law is useless, however, unless Congress brings performance information alive through regular dialogues, questioning, hearings, re-authorizations, appropriations, and oversight efforts based on performance of existing programs. The law is also useless unless Congress demands credible, accurate, objective information from federal agencies on performance--either through assistance from offices of Inspectors General or the General Accounting Office, CRS, or other external auditors or their own congressional investigators.
Although far more work could be done, Congress is showing some signs of increased use of performance information for funding, oversight, or reauthorization decisions. This is occurring largely outside of media scrutiny. It is a quiet, but fundamental, change in the way Washington works.
Recent indicators or examples include:
A December 1998 Congressional Research Service report shows an increased use of performance measures, particularly by congressional appropriators in the 104th and 105th Congresses. In the 105th Congress, CRS found 45 public laws and 78 reports accompanying bills which referenced performance measures or GPRA. This compares to 14 public laws and 27 reports in the 104th Congress.
Last year, Democrats and Republicans peppered some Administration witnesses in their appropriations hearings about the actual evidence of performance or non-performance of agency programs.
HHS was asked about the agency's plan to evaluate the success of Head Start participants after they leave the program.
OPM was asked what performance measures are being used to verify progress towards recruiting and retaining a better federal workforce.
ONDCP was threatened with having their spending withheld until they demonstrated the actual effectiveness of an ad campaign.
Early in 1999, Chairmen Dan Burton of the Government Oversight Committee and House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young sent a letter to all 24 agencies covered by the Chief Financial Officers Act threatening to cut their funds if they didn't improve performance, particularly on the major management problems.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey continued to focus congressional and GAO attention on further implementation of GPRA. One letter Majority Leader Armey sent to all Inspectors General asked them to review the area of data validity in the Results Act process.
On August 17, 1999, Senate Governmental Affairs Chairman Fred Thompson sent detailed and individual letters to the heads of federal agencies asking them to focus on specific and longstanding performance and management problems.
Later this month, a Special Report is expected from the Senate Appropriations Committee that details their judgment on agency goals and measures for key programs as contained in Results Act reports issued by agencies.
The Adult Education program at the Department of Education was rewarded with additional funding by its House Appropriations subcommittee over the past two years for having designed logical performance measures and for having credible data.
On September 15, 1999, a confirmation hearing for Sally Katzen for Deputy Director for Management at OMB was dominated by intense questioning from Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN) about the progress and leadership, or lack thereof, by OMB in solving longstanding management problems and showing leadership with agencies on the Results Act.
The House Transportation Subcommittee on Oversight has written a Strategic Plan for EPA (working with other committees who share jurisdiction with EPA), available for comment and review by anyone who requests it. This is a model of diligent work that amplifies the differences and similarities in the minds of those whose job it is to set the mission of EPA.
The General Accounting Office has authored over 200 reports, testimonies, or products related to the Government Performance and Results Act since 1997.
Reform Agenda Based on Results
An agenda for improving Washington must step back from partisan and ideological divides. It must focus and build upon the many shared objectives that unite most Americans. For example, virtually all law-abiding citizens want:
To be secure from international threats, crime, and the scourge of illegal drugs;
To have our children achieve high educational standards in safe schools;
Retirement and health care systems that are financially sound and well managed;
A tax system that is fair in its structure and administration; and
The wise use of federal tax dollars and the delivery of essential federal services with the same quality and efficiency as the private sector.
Hardly anyone would dispute these objectives and many others that could be named. The disputes arise when it comes to determining exactly what the federal government should do about them and how it should be done. Unfortunately, Washington now tends to approach these disputes through ideological and partisan rhetoric rather than reasoned analysis. An agenda for improvement must bring rational, common-sense decision-making to bear in working through these issues.
Duplication and Overlap
Assessing the federal government's results is made difficult by the government's complexity. Federal agencies and programs have mushroomed over time, evolving in a largely random manner in response to the real or perceived needs of the moment. Consequently, duplication and fragmentation abound. (See shaded box for examples of duplication.)
KNOWN EXAMPLES OF DUPLICATION AND OVERLAP IN PROGRAMS
Literally hundreds of different agencies and programs are sometimes directed at the same problem. There is an obvious need to bring some order out of this chaos. As former Comptroller General Charles Bowsher stated in testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee:
The case for reorganizing the federal government is an easy one to make. Many departments and agencies were created in a different time and in response to problems very different from today's. Many have accumulated responsibilities beyond their original purposes. As new challenges arose or new needs were identified, new programs and responsibilities were added to departments and agencies with insufficient regard to their effects on the overall delivery of services to the public.
The current Comptroller General, David Walker, also stressed problems of duplication and fragmentation in recent testimony before the Senate Budget Committee:
Virtually all of the results that the federal government strives to achieve require the concerted and coordinated efforts of two or more federal agencies. Yet our work has repeatedly shown that mission fragmentation and program overlap are widespread and that crosscutting federal program efforts are not well coordinated. In program area after program area, we have found that unfocused and uncoordinated crosscutting programs waste scarce resources, confuse and frustrate taxpayers and program beneficiaries, and limit overall program effectiveness.
Mr. Walker cited a number of familiar examples, such as the 13 different federal agencies that administer over 35 different food safety laws and the 8 different agencies that administer 17 different programs dealing with rural water and wastewater systems. Other examples are the 50 programs for the homeless administered by 8 agencies and the hundreds of programs aimed at low-income urban communities. With regard to the latter, GAO testified:
The federal government assists distressed urban communities and their residents through a complex system involving at least 12 federal departments and agencies. Together, these agencies administer hundreds of programs in the areas of housing, economic development, and social services. For example, we reported that there are at least 154 employment and training assistance programs, 59 programs that could be used for preventing substance abuse, and over 90 early childhood development programs. Considered individually, many of these categorical programs make sense. But together, they often work against the purposes for which they were established, according to the National Performance Review report.
Many agencies and programs are obsolete, demonstrably ineffective, or otherwise of dubious value. In connection with recent testimony before the Senate Budget Committee, the General Accounting Office (GAO) submitted a list of 61 such programs. (See shaded box for examples.) They consisted of federal services that could be provided better by the private sector, outdated or poorly designed federal subsidies, overlapping programs in need of consolidation, outmoded or ineffective federal facilities, and major federal investments that are not cost-effective.
What Federal Services Could Be Better Provided by the Private Sector?
What Federal Subsidies to Individuals, Businesses, or State and Local Governments Are No Longer Needed or Are Poorly Targeted?
What Federal Facilities or Locations Are Outmoded, Ineffective?
In What Areas Could Major Federal Capital Investments Be More Cost-Effective?
Corporate Welfare and Pork-Barrel Spending
Another familiar problem area consists of "pork-barrel" programs and projects that use taxpayer funds for the benefit of a few special interests or narrow segments of the public. Citizens against Government Waste estimated that appropriation bills enacted for fiscal year 2000 contained over $15 billion in pork-barrel spending.
FY 1999 Pork
Another area in need of scrutiny is so-called corporate welfare--i.e., spending programs and tax breaks that confer special benefits on particular industries or industry segments that are unlikely candidates for federal largess.
|12 Worst Corporate Welfare
Waste, Fraud, Mismanagement
Allegedly ineffective, "pork-barrel," and "corporate welfare" programs at least represent legal uses of taxpayer funds duly appropriated for these purposes, imprudent as they may be. Each of these programs has its defenders, who have every right to make their case. After all, one person's "pork" is another person's vital need. What is worse than this kind of imprudent spending is the billions of taxpayer dollars squandered on spending that is simply illegal or utterly wasteful by anyone's definition. This includes losses to fraud and abuse, erroneous benefit payments to individuals who do not qualify for them, and huge federal investments in major projects such as computer systems that don't work.
Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN) has written to the Office of Management and Budget about $19.1 billion in improper payments from large federal social programs. His Senate Governmental Affairs committee has also documented $210.5 billion in wasteful federal spending that includes $4.6 billion in defense contract overpayments that contractors voluntarily returned to DOD over a five-year period. (See shaded box for details.)
|$19.1 Billion found in
improper overpayments in large federal programs in 1998
With the exception of admirable efforts by Representative Steve Horn (R-CA) and Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN) to use their committee jurisdiction to expose waste and mismanagement, there are few examples of leadership in committees in this regard. A new effort appears to be underway in the House and Senate to more effectively expose and address government waste, although it is too early to assess the initiative's effectiveness.
In 1990, GAO began compiling a "high-risk list" of those federal programs and activities most vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement. The GAO high-risk list started with 14 problem areas and has expanded with every subsequent update. The current high-risk list, issued in 1999, consists of 26 problem areas. (See shaded box.) The list keeps expanding because while new areas are regularly added, few qualify for removal. Only one high-risk area has been removed since 1995. Ten of the 14 original high-risk areas from 1990 are still on the list today. A similar pattern emerges from the work of agency inspectors general (IGs). For each of the past three years, the IGs of the major federal agencies have reported to Congress on the most serious performance problems facing their agencies. Like the GAO high-risk areas, the problems identified by the IGs remain much the same year after year.
GAO 1999 High-Risk Areas and the Year Designated
Reducing Inordinate Program Management Risks
|Supplemental Security Income||1997|
|IRS Tax Filing Fraud||1995|
|Defense Infrastructure Management||1997|
|Department of Housing and Urban Development Programs||1994|
|Student Financial Aid Programs||1990|
|Farm Loan Programs||1990|
|Asset Forfeiture Programs||1990|
|The 2000 Census||1997|
Managing Large Procurement Operations More Efficiently
|DOD Inventory Management||1990|
|DOD Weapon Systems Acquisition||1990|
|DOD Contract Management||1992|
|Department of Energy Contract Management||1990|
|Superfund Contract Management||1990|
|NASA Contract Management||1990|
Ensuring Major Technology Investments Improve Services
|Air Traffic Control Modernization||1995|
|Tax Systems Modernization||1995|
|National Weather Service Modernization||1995|
|DOD Systems Development and Modernization Efforts||1995|
Providing Basic Financial Accountability
|DOD Financial Management||1995|
|Forest Service Financial Management||1999|
|Federal Aviation Administration Financial Management||1999|
|IRS Financial Management||1995|
Resolving Serious Information Security Weaknesses 1997
|Government wide Year 2000 computer risks||1997 (taken off)|
Collectively, the core performance problems highlighted repeatedly by GAO and the IGs cost federal taxpayers countless billions of dollars each year in outright waste. They also exact an incalculable toll on the ability of agencies to carry out their missions and serve the needs of our citizens.
The GAO and IG reports point to several recurring root causes for these problems. Most federal agencies suffer from one or more core weaknesses that would undermine the ability of any organization, public or private, to succeed:
Pervasive financial management deficiencies;
Inability to use information technology effectively; and
Inability to hire, retain, and effectively manage an adequate workforce with the necessary skills to carry out the agency's mission.
These problems would set off alarm bells for any rational private-sector executive. However, with a few rare exceptions, they attract little attention from Washington decision-makers.
Congress and President Must Focus on Results
The executive branch and the Congress share responsibility for the current state of affairs in Washington. For its part, the Administration regularly advances policy proposals that sound good and play well in public opinion polls, but prove to be illusory on closer examination. Examples are proposals to "save Social Security" without a plan to address its structural issues, to throw 100,000 new teachers into our troubled public schools without addressing their underlying problems, and to federalize any criminal act that generates sufficient public outrage.
The Clinton Administration, like those before it, also proposes layers of new programs on top of existing ones without any explanation of how the new programs relate to the existing programs or will be more effective. President Clinton's legislative agenda for his final year in office is a classic example. One academic described his scattershot new proposals as being "like saturation bombing without careful aim." Applying the familiar axiom that nothing is as immortal as a Washington spending program is, Presidential Press Secretary Joe Lockhart candidly justified the Administration's strategy, if cynically:
Obviously administrations that follow can undo things, [b]ut the reality in Washington is that it's always a lot harder to undo something than to get something done. So we want to get done as many things as we can that set us on the right path.
Finally, the Administration shows no serious interest in attacking the core performance problems facing the federal government. The President's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has abdicated its responsibilities for government management, even failing to meet specific legal obligations. The stated objectives of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinvention's "reinventing government" initiatives are laudable. However, specific NPR projects at best tinker at the margins of the government's most serious performance challenges. NPR has produced few if any verifiable cost savings or tangible improvements in government performance.
Initial NPR reviews were going to take each existing federal program and ask: "Is this program or function critical to the agency's mission based on customer input?" If no, the program would be destined for termination or privatization. If the answer was yes, the next question was to be: "Can it be done as well or better at the state or local level?" GAO has been able to verify very little cost savings or programmatic reform from this initial effort.
There is virtually no correlation between NPR projects and the high-risk or other mission-critical problems repeatedly highlighted by GAO and agency IGs. Indeed, some NPR efforts may be counterproductive. For example, "downsizing" of the federal workforce was done randomly rather than strategically, with no effort to distinguish between important and unnecessary employees. This indiscriminate downsizing actually exacerbated many core performance problems.
Congress has its own problems. The annual appropriations process clearly is broken. This process consumes huge amounts of time and effort. Yet it has become impossible to enact the 13 regular appropriations bills by the start of a new fiscal year, or for that matter to enact the more controversial individual bills at all on a stand-alone basis. The usual finale to the appropriation cycle is a massive "omnibus" bill pulled together at the end of each session through intensive, eleventh-hour negotiations. The negotiations typically involve few participants and take place out of the public eye. Most Members of Congress have only the vaguest idea of what they are voting on when they approve it. These omnibus bills give meaning to the phrase "the devil is in the details." Following their enactment, it can take weeks just to sort out what's in them. The end-of-session process is so intensive and physically exhausting that mistakes inevitably are made and all participants are left feeling like victims at the end of the day.
One reason for the breakdown in the appropriations process is the increasing burden of substantive legislative provisions that can only get enacted as part of "must pass" spending bills. This, in turn, stems from the inability of Congress to enact authorizing legislation for many spending programs in the regular course of business. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently reported that Congress enacted about $121 billion in fiscal year 2000 spending for programs with expired authorizations. This included about $8.2 billion in funding for foreign aid programs that were last authorized in 1987 and $4.4 billion for Department of Energy programs that were last authorized in 1984. The CBO report doesn't even take into account funding for programs that have never been authorized. Appropriating funds for unauthorized programs violates both House and Senate rules, but these rules are routinely "waived."
In addition to its difficulty passing legislation, Congress rarely conducts meaningful oversight of existing programs and activities to determine which are working and which are not. Most oversight focuses on "scandals" or consists of quick expositions of isolated problems with no follow-up. As Senator Voinovich recently observed:
[F]rom career bureaucrats to Cabinet Secretaries, nearly everyone in the Executive branch knows that when they're asked to come up to the Hill for an oversight hearing, once it's over, it's over--rarely do they have to worry about any follow-up hearings because Congress just doesn't have the time.
Nuts-and-bolts, systematic oversight of programs doesn't generate much media attention. Congress has enacted a number of statutory tools to help scrutinize programs to see if they are working--most notably GPRA--but with few exceptions has done little to use these tools to inform its own legislative and oversight activities.
An Unaccountable Regulatory Machine
Regulation is another area of Washington activity that needs fundamental reexamination. Here again, the problem stems from the inability of Congress to do its job. Congress tends to be unable or unwilling to confront and resolve difficult policy issues through the legislative process. Therefore, it often enacts vague laws that sidestep the tough issues and leave them for executive agencies and the courts to work out. Agencies usually are more than willing to prescribe sweeping regulations that fill the voids left by Congress. It is hard to challenge such regulations as being inconsistent with the law or congressional intent since Congress often has no discernable intent (other than to avoid the issue). Accordingly, the courts typically have no alternative but to defer to administrative interpretations.
As a result, much current federal policy is prescribed by administrative fiat rather than enacted by our elected representatives in Congress. With more than a little hypocrisy, Members of Congress like to decry regulatory policymaking by "unelected bureaucrats" who are "out of control." In response to these concerns, Congress enacted the Congressional Review Act (CRA) in 1996. The Act established a process for congressional review and potential disapproval of agency regulations, particularly "major rules" having an annual economic impact of $100 million or more. However, the CRA has proven to be an ineffective paperwork exercise through which agency rules are submitted to Congress but receive no significant congressional review. Congress has not come close to actually rejecting an agency rule. As one expert observed:
The CRA is not working. Part of the problem may be traced to identifiable structural and interpretive flaws. Part may also be attributable to a lack of political will to confront and deal with complex and sensitive policy issues that major rulemakings often present.
The latter reason probably accounts primarily for the CRA's failure. If Congress can't make the tough policy calls when enacting a law in the first place, how can it be expected to muster the will to reverse the agency's policy call later when regulations implementing the law are submitted?
In short, scant executive branch or congressional attention is devoted to the vast majority of federal programs and activities that make up the everyday functioning of the federal government and account for much of the federal budget. Authorizers rarely authorize and overseers rarely oversee these programs and activities. Funding generally is provided with little regard for how the programs and activities are performing. What attention individual program activities do receive tends to focus on the so-called delta--i.e., proposed increases or decreases from their prior year funding "base." Hardly ever are they subjected to "zero-based" consideration of the whether they deserve to be funded at all.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO CHANGE WASHINGTON?
Can anything be done to change the way Washington operates? Some believe conditions have to improve at least marginally following the upcoming elections. They hope a new Administration and a new Congress, whatever their political makeup, will help clear the venomous atmosphere that now prevails. Others argue that current conditions are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. They maintain that the era of significant change at the federal level, whether emanating from the left or the right, is over. In their view, Washington has morphed into a permanent state of stalemate in which change-oriented agendas are easily derailed by entrenched constituencies that protect almost any interest from almost any threat to the status quo.
Nevertheless, challenging as it may be, change is possible. There is much that can be done to improve the federal government in tangible, non-ideological ways that transcend the policy stalemates and bridge political divides in Washington. An agenda along these lines needs to start from and build upon basic, common-sense principles that address concerns most people can agree upon, regardless of their political leanings, and that focus on what's doable. However, Washington will not change unless the public is involved and engaged.
Public Expectations About Government
Low public confidence in Washington probably stems from expectations of the federal government that are in some respects too high and in other respects too low. Unreasonably high expectations are kindled by liberal Washington politicians who advocate a federal government that is all things to all people. While the federal government has important functions to perform, federal intervention is not the answer to every problem our society faces. Improving the education and economic security of our citizens, enhancing housing opportunities, reducing poverty and discrimination, and protecting the environment are all areas in which the federal government surely must contribute. However, that contribution must be commensurate with the federal government's ability to deliver results.
Some federal programs, such as some federal job training programs, do more harm than good, yet no one wants to admit it. In addition, federal program activities with lofty goals that clearly exceed their reach serve only to drive expectations that can't be met, thereby further undermining public confidence.
On the other hand, there are many areas in which the public should expect, and indeed demand, better performance by the federal government. These include functions that directly touch most of the population, such as controlling air traffic, predicting the weather, and administering the tax laws, Social Security, and health care programs. There is no reason why the government cannot perform these functions at levels of efficiency and effectiveness comparable to private-sector organizations. State and local governments have made great strides in improving their performance, which, in turn, has increased public trust and confidence in them. The federal government can do the same.
Credible Data Are Key
A new orientation towards performance of government programs, however, must rest upon a foundation of objective, credible performance data. In a significant warning to Congress and the Office of Inspectors General (OIG) community, GAO recently said that 20 of 24 of the major agencies were not expected to be able to provide credible performance data to the Congress relative to what agencies are trying to achieve with taxpayer money.
Data need to be verified. Misleading performance data emerged during last year's appropriations cycle about how many poor people were, in fact, being served with federal dollars from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). In that case, Congress was initially provided with inaccurate performance data--data that attempted to make a case for increased federal funding. Yet, one-third to two-thirds of reported cases were collapsing under new scrutiny by GAO, IG audits, and the press.
LSC found they had enormous problems in providing credible data on the quantity of poor people served by federal dollars. Yet Congress will ultimately benefit from improved quality of performance data across the board--who is getting served, who is turned away, is there a long-lasting positive impact from governmental programs or is unintended harm occurring from federal involvement?
On the other hand, if Congress is idle while bad, incomplete, or inaccurate information is distributed about government's performance, public cynicism is likely to increase.
The public needs to be less cynical about the federal government and its elected leaders. Cynicism serves only to create a vicious cycle. Its effects can be seen in the increasing public apathy toward our political processes and lack of interest in public service at both political and career levels. The more detached the public is from Washington, the more insular and the less responsive Washington will become. It is impractical to think that the federal government will somehow rise above the public's expectations on its own. "Good enough for government work" will continue to be the mantra of federal performance until the public rejects it.
FOCUS ON REAL CONCERNS THAT MATTER TO REAL PEOPLE
For starters, Washington decision-makers need to spend less time engaged in ideological warfare over symbolic issues that appeal to the few and spend more time working constructively on real problems that matter to most people. The results of a recent survey, in which respondents were given a list of 51 potential concerns and asked to rank those that were most and least important to them, illustrate this point. According to the survey, the public's 10 greatest concerns were:
Insurance companies are making decisions about medical care that doctors and patients should be making.
Children in America are no longer safe in their own schools.
Elderly Americans won't be able to afford the prescription drugs they need.
Because of work and other pressures, parents don't have enough time to spend with their children.
Medical benefits that you and your family now receive will be reduced or eliminated.
Crime will increase.
A good college education is becoming too expensive.
Use of illegal drugs will increase.
The American educational system will get worse instead of better.
Pollution and other environmental problems will get worse.
The 10 least concerns were:
The United States spends too much on its armed forces.
We will shut the door to new immigrants, and the dream of a melting-pot nation will be lost.
Affirmative action may have gone too far to give some blacks unfair advantages over whites.
Vouchers for private and religious schools will erode the public school system.
The religious right has too much political power.
Labor unions have too much political power.
The United States doesn't spend enough on its armed forces.
It will become harder for a woman to obtain a legal abortion.
We will elect another President who will embarrass the country with scandals while in office.
It's becoming too hard for a law-abiding citizen to own a gun.
This is no longer an English-speaking nation; too many people don't know or use the language.
The most instructive aspect of the survey is not the individual responses, but their broader context. All of the top 10 concerns affect the daily lives of many people. The bottom 10 concerns tend to be more abstract and ideological.
DO THINGS THAT GET RESULTS
In focusing on real concerns that matter to people, Washington decision-makers need to take actions that will produce real results. In doing so, they need to direct their attention to three fundamental questions:
1. What can and should the federal government do?
2. How can it best go about doing it?
3. What resources (funding, staff, etc.) are needed to get it done efficiently and effectively?
Obviously, these questions involve subjective policy judgments that require the balancing of competing political interests. However, policy decisions should be the product of honest and open debate that includes objective, fact-based analysis. Most policy decisions cannot turn on purely objective, fact-based analyses. However, all should be informed by such analyses. This rarely happens in Washington today.
The Promise of Reliable Performance Information
Ultimately, and if Congress maintains attention and integrity to implementing the Government Performance and Results Act, this powerful oversight tool can tell us which tools of governance, such as regulations, tax incentives, educational campaigns, grants, or partnerships, are effective and which are ineffective. Are we getting people off drugs, protecting our borders, reducing discrimination? Or are we just throwing other people's money at problems society cares about?
Better performance information could be redirecting precious resources, just as governing by performance changed how New York City's police department operated. There, they began managing by performance and results. They began to evaluate where, when, and how crimes occurred daily and then focused enforcement efforts and resources in critical areas. They evaluated performance of individual precincts and held precinct commanders personally accountable for the performance of their precinct. Homicides and felonies dramatically declined to the lowest levels in 20 years by this new focus on results.
Other examples of performance-based governing are:
The Veterans Administration began to compare the performance of its various hospitals against one another. Looking at various success rates for cardiac surgeries, the Veterans Health Administration made changes to how it conducted diagnostic testing to handle post-operative procedures. The results were fewer errors and more saved lives.
The U.S. Coast Guard shifted from monitoring its numbers of inspections of ships to understanding that human error was causing most accidents. They then shifted their training in the shipping and towing industry accordingly. Fatality rates in the towing industry were reduced 75 percent.
If the federal government's goal is to reduce teen smoking, right now we have little guidance on which of the existing federal efforts are showing the greatest return on tax dollars. Is it one of the two FDA regulations in existence? Is it a federally funded ad campaign? Are grants working? Are some grants working better than others are? Does raising the cost for tobacco products work, or not? Doesn't HUD's recently revealed effort to subsidize "smoke shops" at Indian reservations to sell cigarettes at discount prices encourage smoking?
We should be able to know what works the best to bring non-English-speaking students into English proficiency the fastest. In the fourth grade, 77 percent of children in urban high-poverty schools are reading "below basic" on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and 40 percent of all American 4th graders are "below basic." American 12th graders rank 19th out of 21 industrialized countries in mathematics achievement and 16th out of 21 nations in science. Our advanced physics students rank dead last. Some school districts do better; some programs work better than others. How much do we know about those that work, and why not encourage more replication of effective programs while cutting funding for ineffective, wasteful programs?
CONCENTRATE ON WHAT THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT CAN DO BEST
Few would argue with the proposition that the sum total of current federal responsibilities, agencies, and programs far exceeds the federal government's capacity to perform effectively. Clearly, there is a need to step back and reconsider what the federal government can and should be doing.
Reassessing what the federal government should do starts with the Constitution itself. The Constitution assigns the federal government affirmative and exclusive responsibility for certain core functions. They include:
Providing for the national defense;
Conducting foreign policy and intercourse with foreign nations;
Securing the nation's borders;
Facilitating and regulating those activities that truly constitute interstate commerce; and
Dealing with problems that clearly require national solutions based on nationwide jurisdiction.
The federal government has an obligation to all of its citizens to perform these core functions well. Doing so should be its highest priority.
Beyond core federal responsibilities that are directly rooted in the Constitution, there is a huge continuum of functions that the federal government now performs. Some of these, such as Social Security and Medicare, are now fundamental to the well-being of most people and obviously need to be retained in some form and performed well.
At the other end of the spectrum are programs that appear to lack any mission that furthers an important federal role and benefit only narrow interests. It is in this continuum that sorting out what should and should not be done is most difficult. As Comptroller General David Walker recently put it, federal decision-makers need to "distinguish the infinite variety of 'wants' from those investments that promise to effectively address critical 'needs.'" Here too, policy judgments should be informed by principled and fact-based analysis.
The analysis should start with a comprehensive and systematic review of the stated missions and performance of all current federal program activities. The review should take a zero-based approach and consider whether the program activity would be created anew if considered for the first time today. In this context, key questions include:
Does the program activity have a clearly articulated results-oriented mission?
Does the mission serve a clear federal interest within the constitutional and operational competency of the federal government?
Is the federal government uniquely positioned to perform the mission, or at least better positioned than other levels of government or the private sector?
The federal government has an obligation to the taxpayers in general, and to those who depend on federal services and benefits in particular, to spend every tax dollar effectively. Every function that is worth doing at the federal level should be done well. The question, "What tangible results does a federal agency, program, or activity produce that really matter to the American people and are worthy of their investment of tax dollars?" should be asked of all existing agencies, programs, and activities, as well as all proposed new ones. The answer should be as honest, objective, and fact-based as available information permits.
Specifically, when considering legislation to authorize, reauthorize, and fund programs, Congress should routinely ask:
What performance results is the program intended to accomplish, and how will it be held accountable?
If reauthorizing an existing program, what performance results has the program accomplished in the past that justify its renewal?
If considering a new program, how does it relate to existing programs having the same or similar purposes? If similar existing programs have performed successfully, why enact a new one? If they have not performed successfully, why not fix them instead of layering on new programs? If existing unsuccessful programs can't be fixed, what assurance is there that the new one will fare better?
One way to facilitate this analysis is to incorporate specific performance goals and measures in program authorizing legislation. Congress should adopt rules prohibiting the consideration of significant program authorization or reauthorization legislation unless it incorporates such goals and measures. Congress also should insist that the Administration address these questions as well when submitting its budget and other program proposals.
The same approach applies with equal force to administrative regulations. As discussed previously, regulations often serve as a de facto substitute for legislative policymaking. In fact, between April 1996 and the end of September 1999, the executive branch issued 15,280 final rules. This compares to 667 laws enacted from congressional debate and presidential signature in the same period of time. Regulations should be given the same scrutiny as legislative proposals. Major rules and other significant regulations should incorporate specific outcome-oriented performance goals and measures, and should be held accountable for achieving them.
Of course, determining whether a program activity is performing effectively and deciding what to do if it is not are entirely distinct matters. How well a program is performing should be treated as an objective inquiry, recognizing that it is often difficult to demonstrate with a high degree of confidence what a particular program or activity is accomplishing. Poor performance does not dictate a policy decision. If a program's performance is deficient, further inquiry is necessary to find out why. Perhaps the program design is faulty and in need of legislative correction. Perhaps it is sound in design but poorly administered or inadequately funded or otherwise supported. Perhaps it is fundamentally flawed. Only when the causes have been determined, to the extent possible, is the time ripe for a policy decision.
The essential point is that everyone should want to know, as best can be ascertained, which programs are working and which aren't. A non-performing program not only is wasteful, but also cheats its intended beneficiaries. Some may seek to fix ineffective programs; others may advocate eliminating them. No one should opt to simply continue them without reform.
ENSURE THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT'S ABILITY TO PRODUCE RESULTS
Capacity to achieve performance results
Those programs and activities that are truly worth pursuing must be supported adequately in order to ensure their effective and efficient implementation. This triggers another series of questions along the following lines:
Do necessary programs and activities have adequate capacity--e.g., adequate staff with the right skills, sufficient funding, and effective information technology--to achieve their performance results?
Under-funding essential federal functions is at best penny-wise and pound-foolish. One fundamental difference between private-sector and government management is their level of attention to capacity and infrastructure. Private-sector firms realize that their success absolutely depends on investing the necessary resources to produce results. At the federal level, decision-makers are largely indifferent to capacity and infrastructure problems, preferring to concentrate on policy issues. However, at the end of the day, these problems can undermine implementation of the best-conceived policies.
Combating mission-critical management problems
Just as programs and activities need to be provided adequate resources, these resources must be used properly and efficiently. Abuse and mismanagement in the federal government waste resources, undermine program effectiveness, and seriously detract from service to intended program beneficiaries. A number of major federal benefit programs--including Medicare, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit--have erroneous payment levels that cut significantly into their total budgets. The tens of billions wasted annually on improper federal payments could be used to enhance program benefits.
SYSTEMATICALLY AND CONTINUOUSLY EXAMINE FEDERAL PERFORMANCE
Congress and the executive branch need to systematically and continuously assess--in a results-oriented, fact-based way--what agencies and programs are accomplishing. They must then link funding and other actions to performance results.
If this process is to be credible and effective, it must be both comprehensive and even-handed. There can be no sacred cows of the right or the left. Defense Department programs and activities need the same scrutiny as those operated by HHS and HUD. Indeed, there may well be even greater need to look at the effectiveness of defense programs. No function is more central to the federal government's constitutional responsibilities than providing for the national defense. Yet, according to independent auditors, the Defense Department is more beset by inefficiency and waste than any other agency of government. For example, six of the 26 GAO high-risk problems relate to Defense, and no major part of the Defense Department is able to pass a basic financial audit. Resolving these problems would substantially enhance mission performance.
Defense faces other fundamental performance issues as well. One commentator recently observed that there has been no serious inquiry into where national defense policy is going and why since the 1980s. However, he pointed out there are serious issues that need to be addressed, including:
Why are we sacrificing the seed corn of future weaponry-research and development dollars to feed today's demanding and already-fattened hogs, Cold War-era weapons and commitments?
What happens if foreign firms, which now make an increasingly large share of vital parts for American weapons, decide not to deliver them in the middle of a war?
Given the entrenched political constituencies behind virtually every current agency and program, probably only an independent, bipartisan commission removed from the normal Washington processes could successfully conduct the kind of systematic review that is needed. The commission could be tasked with developing a single comprehensive proposal for expedited congressional consideration and an up-or-down vote. The advent of a new Administration and Congress offers a good opportunity to establish such a commission.
IMPROVE HOW WASHINGTON DOES BUSINESS
Back to Basics
The processes by which Washington operates also need to get back to basics. This applies both to the executive branch and the Congress.
Executive Branch Actions Needed:
Manage for results by focusing performance and accountability on the key outcomes that agencies and their programs exist to achieve. This includes linking employee performance appraisals and rewards to performance results.
Link funding to performance results by attaching consequences to performance--both good and bad. The Administration, OMB, and the individual agencies must relate funding to performance in their own budget formulation. Agencies and programs that pursue and achieve important results should be rewarded. Those that do not should be fixed or eliminated. Consistent with the words of President Clinton, we should support federal programs that work and stop supporting those that don't.
Link other program actions to performance results. Much more needs to be done to coordinate and rationalize the myriad overlapping and fragmented programs that now exist. New interagency coordination teams should share valuable performance measures and data to determine which programs are working and which are not. It is particularly important that Administration proposals for new or revised programs identify their intended results and how they relate to similar existing programs.
Subject administrative regulations to the same performance scrutiny and accountability as other programs and activities. They should incorporate specific outcome-oriented performance goals and measures.
Resolve mission-critical management problems that so often undermine the capacity of agencies to achieve results. Many of the recurring performance problems facing agencies stem from a lack of sustained interest and commitment to resolve them. Experience has demonstrated that one effective way to focus accountability on these problems is for agency heads to adopt specific and measurable performance goals to address them.
To accomplish all of the above, the Administration needs to take a serious interest in improving government performance. Clearly, this is not the case now. In particular, the Administration needs to restore the "M" in OMB by strengthening that agency's management role and improving its performance and leadership in government reform. Further work needs to be done to enhance "performance based-contracting" and "pay for performance" initiatives.
Congressional Actions Needed:
Enact appropriations bills in a timely manner and base funding decisions on performance. Congress should start enforcing "the regular order" through which decisions on individual appropriations bills are made openly and knowingly. It also needs to practice "truth in budgeting" by abandoning gimmicks that often make a mockery of the current process.
There is growing sentiment that fundamental reform of the appropriations process can only be accomplished by moving to a biennial budget cycle. A biennial process has the added benefit of freeing up more time for congressional oversight. While biennial budgeting may be a necessary step, Congress and the executive branch must still supply the will to make funding decisions in a better way. Past process reforms, such as requiring annual budget resolutions and changing the federal fiscal year, obviously were not enough in themselves to achieve lasting improvements.
Enact authorizing legislation for spending programs. Congress now regularly ignores its own rules and provides hundreds of billions of dollars in unauthorized spending each year. Authorization decisions should be linked to performance results. This forces examination of which programs are working and which are not, and provides the discipline for legislative improvements. Congress should enforce its own rules prohibiting consideration of appropriations for unauthorized programs. If the votes aren't there to authorize a program through the normal legislative process, it shouldn't be funded.
Conduct regular, bipartisan, and systematic oversight of what the federal government is accomplishing and how its performance can be improved. Prior to authorizing or re-authorizing legislation, congressional committees need to have a full appreciation for what federal dollars are accomplishing in the mushrooming government we own today. Too often, Congress considers its job done once programs are enacted.
Every committee should conduct a comprehensive and systematic review of stated missions and goals of the federal agencies within its jurisdiction using the Performance Plans and Performance Reports required by the Results Act. These documents provide a valuable foundation for improved policy discussions and debate in Washington. What can and should the federal government be doing? Is it staying within its proper boundaries? Does the agency have evidence of objective, fact-based effectiveness? Is the private sector or state or local government in a better position to accomplish the stated goal?
If there is no evidence of effectiveness, Congress should consider sunsetting or terminating such a program. Such was the idea of Representative Bob Schaffer's amendment on juvenile justice last June. The amendment would sunset those existing federal programs designed to assist at-risk or delinquent youth in the Justice Department if they were unable to prove actual effectiveness. Currently there are 117 programs in 16 agencies that spend $4.5 billion aimed at at-risk or delinquent youth annually. Would any of them stop another Columbine high school shooting? Representative Schaffer's common-sense amendment, applying only to those programs within one division of the Justice Department, received 364 votes (210 Republicans and 153 Democrats).
2000 is critical turning point for implementation of Results Act
This is a very important year for the Results Act's implementation. The Results Act requires the publication of an annual Performance Report in March of each year. The first Performance Report is due March 31, 2000. Performance Reports delineate the degree of achievement of goals set forth in an agency's last annual Performance Plan (FY 2001 Plans were issued this month to Congress with the President's Budget request), which derive from an agency's Strategic Plan (issued in the fall of 1997).
When they were first published, GAO wrote of the Strategic Plans that they were not "of a consistently high quality or as useful for congressional and agency decision-making as they could be." GAO also wrote, however, that the Strategic Plans "provide a workable foundation for Congress to use in helping to fulfill its appropriations, budget, authorization, and oversight responsibilities."
Congress should consider writing specific performance goals into legislation, particularly if an agency seems disinclined to listen to the Congress in other manners. The House Rules Committee may even want to consider changing House rules to add a point of order for those pieces of legislation that do not include specific goals and measures, unless there is a compelling reason to exclude such clarified expectations.
Perhaps most important of all, Congress needs to be part of the solution to problems. Oversight that simply berates agencies for poor performance is unproductive and hypocritical. Congress has the ability, and with it the responsibility, to resolve most performance problems. Indeed, many performance problems can be traced to problems in underlying legislation or inadequate funding.
Despite my personal conservative leanings, the agenda for change outlined above is neither liberal nor conservative; it is neither pro- nor anti-government. While it departs sharply from current Washington thinking, it is not radical or fanciful. It simply represents a common-sense, practical framework based on practices that are applied by successful private-sector organizations and their leaders.
Finally, it is certainly not a panacea. Obviously, the federal government faces countless challenges and policy choices that can only be resolved through the political processes that are the essence of our democracy. However, the public cannot afford value judgments and political decisions that are made in an analytical vacuum. Americans will soon elect a new Administration and Congress. If these officials take a hardheaded, performance-based, and results-oriented approach to doing their jobs, they can go a long way toward restoring trust and confidence in Washington and giving our citizens the federal government they deserve.
Virginia L. Thomas is Senior Fellow in Government Studies at The Heritage Foundation,