Archive for the ‘Obama’ Category

Recovery Act: Watching the Watchers

August 10, 2009

recovery1The Recovery Act created a huge oversight mechanism and provided more than $350 million for audits and investigations to ensure the $787 billion in the Act would not be wasted.  For example, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board released a checklist for how to look for waste, fraud and abuse in Recovery Act grants (e.g., “Was the award announced on FBO?  Yes/No”).    Government Executive’s Elizabeth Newell reports that the Board has created an outreach program to agencies to help them.

But what is really interesting is the number of other groups that are engaged in tracking and money and conducting oversight as well.

The most well-known is a private company, Oniva (no, not the calcium supplement), which created its own version of Recovery.gov, the federal government’s website to track the funds being spent.  Their website is:  www.recovery.org.  This site is compiled by dozens of analysts who comb local news media for notices about public spending linked to Recovery Act funds (collecting their info from the bottom up).  It reports 24,463 active projects, spending $77.48 Billion.  In contrast, the federal site (www.recovery.gov) depends on reports from federal agencies, grantees, and contractors (collecting from the top down).  It reports $73.14 Billion as “paid out” as of July 31st.

Another, OMB Watch, is sponsoring a “Coalition for an Accountable Recovery” (CAR) that advocates for greater transparency in Recovery Act spending.

In addition, the advocacy group, “States for a Transparent and Accountable Recovery” (STAR) looks at similar issues from a state-local perspective.

Last week, another advocacy group, “GoodJobsFirst” released a report assessing how transparent the states were being on their Recovery Act websites.

Senator Tom Coburn has been conducting his own investigations of how Recovery Act monies are being used, but they’ve been seen as partisan (or at least incomplete).  His report seems to have gotten more publicity, at least . . ..

And advocacy groups aren’t only looking at the Recovery Act!  There’s a group, Bailout Watch, that is tracking the use of the $700 Billion in bailout monies under programs like TARP.  It has a page called “SubsidyScope.com” that tracks what financial institutions are receiving under the various federal bailout programs.

Are there other websites out there that you know of that are tracking the money (and/or its impact?)

. . . here’s a late addition.  Pro Publica has created a “Stimulus Progress Bar” that’s worth looking at!

Obama’s Contracting Initiatives: An Update

July 29, 2009

President Obama’s 2008 election campaign made strong commitments to reduce the government’s dependence on the use of contractors. Now come the implementation details:

The Bush Administration had been a big promoter of the use of contractors, basically doubling spending on contracting to about $500 billion a year. Congress pushed back on some initiatives to outsource some government functions – even when the Republicans controlled the Congress.  It increased restrictions, embedded study requirements regarding the appropriate balance of government vs. private employees, required the Administration (in the Defense Department authorization bill) to develope a definition of what constitutes “inherently governmental” positions, and directed the Intelligence Community to conduct an assessment of its staffing mix between public and private resources, and the Intel Community is beginning to tilt its staffing mix toward more government hires.  Most recently, the Senate has proposed banning all outsourcing studies.

In his first 100 days, President Obama signed a memorandum on contracting reform directing a re-assessment of public vs. private sectors in providing governmental services.  The new deputy secretary of Defense issued internal guidance on how Defense agencies should address this, as well.  The presidential memo included several studies and deadlines.  Several of those have just been released, according to a story by Joe Davidson in today’s Washington Post, “OMB Moves to Cut Outside Contractors.”

According to the Post article, OMB has (or will) issue four guidance memos to agencies:

  • Improving Government Acquisition.  This memo set out guidance to agencies to review their existing contracts and buying practices in order to save $40 billion a year through better practices.  It requires them to:  (1)  develop plans to save 7 percent of contract spending over the next two years (3.5 percent in fiscal year 2010; 3.5 percent in fiscal year 2011); and (2) reduce by 10 percent next year the amount of dollars awarded under “high risk contracting authorities” such as non-competitive contracts, cost-reimbursement contracts, and time-and-material contracts.
  • Managing the Multi-Sector Workforce.  This memo sets out initial guidance to help agencies improve their management of their combined public sector and contractor workforces.  It requires agencies to (1) adopt a human capital planning framework that covers their multi-sector workforce, (2) pilot an analysis of at least one program where the agency has a concern about an over-reliance on contractors, and (3) develop guidelines for when to in-source work to government employees (along with an attachment based on earlier guidance developed by the Defense Department).
  • Improving the Use of Contractor Performance Information.   This memo, directed to agency procurement officers, requires them to submit an electronic record of contracting performance to a central governmentwide database.  It also directs them to develop internal procedures and designate individuals to be in charge of ensuring contracts are assessed. 
  • A third memo will be issued by OMB in the Fall covering competition, contract types, acquisition workforce, and when outsourcing is or is not appropriate.

The private sector, in an assessment by the research firm FedSources, seems to have already recognized that the growth in contract spending may be over.  In a story last month by Elise Castelli for Federal Times, “Contract Spending Expected to Flatten,” she wrote that the study “projects government contract spending to grow at a compound annual rate of 2 percent between 2008 and 2014.  That’s a sharp contrast to the 12 percent compound annual growth rate of the last six years.”

The $100 Million Challenge

July 28, 2009

piggy-bankPresident Obama challenged his cabinet at its first meeting on April 20th to collectively cut $100 million from their current administrative budgets.  Today, the Office of Management and Budget announced that that goal has been exceeded:  $102 million in savings. . . . with additional savings promised for next year of $140 million!

The announcement, in OMB Director Peter Orzag’s blog (institutionally an amazing step for OMB), notes that “These savings reflect the President’s belief that even small savings can add up.”  Some examples:

  • The Department of Agriculture’s US Forest Service expects to save $1.8 million in FY 2009 by ceasing to re-paint newly purchased vehicles;
  • The Department of Justice will save an estimated $4 million in FY 2010 by requiring personnel to make their travel arrangements online, rather than relying on travel agents;  
  • the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will digitize its daily news clips – saving $1,000 per year

And here is his memo to the President summarizing the results in more detail.

The real challenge, however, will be the agencies’ commitments to specific goals as part of the fiscal year 2011 budget process.  Those commitments are due to OMB by Friday.  I’m sure we’ll learn more soon!

Fact-Based Governing

July 27, 2009

Maryland’s State-Stat.  Last week I took a field trip to Annapolis to visit Governor Martin O’Malley’s much ballyhooed State-Stat management system.  It is a variation of Baltimore’s Citi-Stat, which O’Malley created in 2001 when he became mayor.  It could serve as an inspiration for what the federal government might do to track the implementation of the various agency-level goals to be submitted to OMB by the end of the week, as well as to coordinate the work of the various “czars” working on cross-agency initiatives.Maryland Flag

Baltimore’s Citi-Stat.  There have been several studies of, as well as awards for, the city system.  And the state-level version, which has been in operation for the past two years since O’Malley has become governor, has been adapted to include a handful of broad, cross-agency goals developed by the governor.  These goals are being driven by a new Governor’s Delivery Unit.

The characteristic, though, that I saw as most power was how agency heads were creating their own versions of State-Stat within their own agencies.  This happened in Baltimore City as well.  This means that the use of strategic analytics – characterized by fact-based decision-making — is being driven down into how agencies do their work, and it is not just a compliance exercise.

Fact-Based Governing Is Expanding. While most prominent in Maryland, these methods are being applied more frequently in other states (such as Washington State) and localities.  The development of “data warehouses” — putting data in one place to analyze and look across organizational boundaries to inform decisions or actions – is happening in police departments as well as homeland security state fusion centers.

Great Britain has a parallel.  Beginning in 2001, the prime minister’s office created a “Delivery Unit” to track key outcome-related priorities, using about 30 Public Service Delivery Agreements to define the contributions of various agencies.  Maryland’s Delivery Unit is newer and just beginning to develop connections between goals, actions, and resources.

The Next Steps.  The trend is moving from performance measurement to performance management.  The fact-based governing approach is the next stage in an evolutionary model of performance management, starting with the standard required reporting from the 1980’s and 1990’s that were descriptive (recording and reporting on what happened and what’s the problem) and then moved to a model that was more analytic (resource planning, measuring performance and processes to determine what will happen if . . . ?) then to a predictive model (How can we achieve the best outcome? What will happen next?).

The challenge, though, according to New York University’s Dennis Smith is that “Every decision involves values and facts.” But he notes: “. . . my aspiration is for a society where public policy and management decisions use systematic thinking to clarify value issues and use empirical evidence to resolve factual disputes.” (Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 2009).

Will UK Government Reforms Inspire Obama?

July 22, 2009

Union JackSome of the initiatives undertaken in the early days of the Clinton-Gore reinventing government initiative were inspired by reforms underway in Britain. This included customer service standards, performance contracts, audited financial statements. That might well happen again! Prime Minister Gordon Brown has released his government’s latest round of reform initiatives, entitled: “Working Together.” Some may inspire potential initiatives by the Obama Administration.

The British reform efforts, begun in 1997, have moved to a new stage.  Brown says they now face two challenges: “how do we ensure [public servants] who deliver public services can respond in new and innovative ways to the diverse personal needs of those they serve?  And, how can we ensure that the quality, sense of personal touch, and responsiveness that exists in the best of public and private sector practices is available to all users of public services?”

He said that the earlier phases of reform entailed setting clear national standards and targets to drive performance, and now – that services are “repaired and rebuilt” – the next phase is to drive change from within the civil service and from citizens by providing more “freedom, flexibility and incentives at the front line to push progress.”  This will mean fewer (but sharper) targets and standards and “new freedoms for front-line staff and institutions  . . .coupled with greater choice and diversity for citizens.”

The British reform is organized around three principles:

Empowering citizens.  Put people first by placing power in the hands of those who use the services by personalizing services and providing greater choice by “democratizing information.”  This will rely on “an information revolution to enable parents, patients and citizens to share information and experiences on the performance of schools, hospitals and police forces.”  While citizens can access other people’s reviews on Amazon or eBay, “we do not yet have systematic access to other people’s experiences when choosing” among public services (e.g., nursing homes, hospitals, schools). 

“We are ushering in a new world of accountability in which parents, patients and local communities shape the services they receive, ensuring all our public services respond not simply to the hand of government, but to the voice of local people.”  This includes “open-source, real tie data on the performance of services” and having the ability to provide feedback to these services and share comments with other citizens.

Ensuring a new professionalism.  Provide front-line professionals and local service deliverers with the space, the skills, and the power to respond.  Boost skills and attract “the brightest and best into our public services. . . “ and give “front-line workers the power to identify and cut unnecessary bureaucracy, and the support they need to innovate and improve services.”  . . . this certainly sounds a lot like what the Gore Reinventing Government initiative attempted to do with its streamlined waiver process!

Providing strategic leadership.  The white paper offered a lot of specifics around what government might do to make government more strategic. It focuses on creating a government that “leads an effective system where empowered users, incentives, and accountabilities drive improvement.”  This means providing more information, technology tools, and opportunities to “foster a dialogue about public services and policy with citizens and professionals.”  Specifics include:

  • Focusing on delivering 30 medium-term objectives via Public Service Agreements.
  • Ensuring transparency that delivers accessible and useful information on the performance of services and outcomes they achieve based on the principles of open information, open innovation, open discussion, and open feedback.
  • Increasing civil service accountability and performance via simpler, more transparent departmental performance assessments, better assessing departmental capabilities, and improving the quality of leadership and management.
  • Driving improved productivity and efficiency by, for example, streamlining back-office functions, shared service centers, asset sales, strategic sourcing, etc.
  • Transforming mission-focused systems via “public value program” projects.
  • Fostering innovation by launching a Public Service Innovation Lab to incubate radical innovations that address long-term challenges;  by harnessing the innovation of citizens via better feedback and a stronger voice in how services are run;  and by engaging front-line public servants in service redesign to cut waste and improve services.

The Obama Administration is still building its reform agenda, according to a recent article by Government Executive’s Elizabeth Newell, “Obama Performance Agenda Takes Shape.”  In fact, some of the themes in the British approach seem to be reflected already. But it might be worth looking a bit more into some of their ideas!

Berry Vision: Aligning the Stars

July 21, 2009
John Berry, OPM Director

John Berry, OPM Director

Yesterday, John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, made a long-anticipated speech at the Excellence in Government conference outlining his vision for public service in the next few years. It didn’t get as specific as an earlier interview he’d given a few weeks ago to Government Executive’s Alyssa Rosenberg, but he did a good job of raising the bar.  Rosenberg not only did a story on his recent speech, but also made the transcript available, and it is excerpted below:

I’ve never been more excited and optimistic about the opportunity for genuine, wholesale, systemic reform in the way we recruit and motivate the Federal workforce. . . .

We all need to showcase these professionals to the American people and make the case: Federal employees deserve respect. . . . .

We have, by and large, the best workers in the world, but we do not have the systems or policies we need to support them. We need comprehensive reform, from recruitment and hiring to pay and training. And, we must expect the best from every employee and fairly appraise their performance to guarantee to the public that America is getting what she deserves – the best. . . . .

Now is the time we must recruit and hire the best; expect the best; respect their successes, and honor their service.

To achieve this, we are going to fix hiring and recruitment so that it is fair, simple and fast, and only based on merit. We are going to improve work-life balance and treat our employees with respect – by enhancing their health and environment and helping them manage their family and loved ones’ demands as best we can.

We are going to honor our veterans and increase their employment opportunities in our domestic agencies.

And we’re going to develop a performance appraisal system that gives substantial rewards to our very best workers, recognizes the good work of the vast majority of our employees, and disciplines and removes the few bad apples who have been given the chance to improve but have either failed or refused to do so. . . . .

Together, these elements form a complete refresh of the Federal government’s people policy. We are not developing these policies in secret; I am talking to everyone I can think of who might have ideas on how we can improve – workers and managers, unions and academics, Members of Congress and agency heads. 

The stars are aligned. We have a President in Barack Obama who gets it; who understands the value of service and isn’t in the practice of throwing around “bureaucrat” as a slur towards our workers. We have allies in leadership in both the House and Senate and Committee Leaders who are ready to help.

This is a once-in-a-generation chance to ask the big questions, and if we do this right, we’ll have a people policy that can last us the rest of the century. So I’m encouraging all of you and all of our partners to think about the big picture.

We’ll be doing just that in September-October, when Harvard is hosting a conference for us, chaired by the Dean of the Kennedy School, former Senator Paul Sarbanes, and Laszlo Bock, the head of people programs for Google.

The stars may not align like this again. So we need to have our plans ready this year.

Transparency Pot Shots

July 20, 2009

recovery1The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board estimates that about 200,000 entities (state agencies, localities, companies, non-profits) will be entering data into the recovery.gov website.

Anybody can look up every expenditure reported. But how do you ensure clarity and accuracy? Will media or others take pot shots without attempting to follow through on unclear information that’s been posted?

Today, the answer is “yes.”  Drudge Report started posting some odd-looking entries into the recovery.gov system with alarming headlines, such as:  “AWARDED: $1,191,200 FOR ‘2 POUND FROZEN HAM SLICED’ “  This led to a quick scramble by the Department of Agriculture to explain

“The references to “2 pound frozen ham sliced” are to the sizes of the packaging. Press reports suggesting that the Recovery Act spent $1.191 million to buy “2 pounds of ham” are wrong. In fact, the contract in question purchased 760,000 pounds of ham for $1.191 million, at a cost of approximately $1.50 per pound.”

Is it up to the data submitter (in this case, Clougherty Packing, LLC), the reporter, or the government to ensure clarity or context?  Doing data quality control over 200,000 separate submitters and still allow relatively “real time” access to data is probably impossible.  Will a political “gotcha” atmosphere temper the Obama Administration’s efforts to increase transparency?  Or is this just the price of getting it right?

As Recovery Board chairman Earl Devaney notes in his first blog post today:  “Think of Recovery.gov as a “New Dawn” in transparency and accountability. To my way of thinking, the government will have to follow this model in future spending. The public will not accept any less, and you shouldn’t.”

Real-Time Results Reporting

July 15, 2009

The Obama Administration is actively promoting transparency of program data via data.gov.  But what about transparency of program results?

Traditionally, agencies report their performance results of their programs at the end of each year.  This is required under the Government Performance and Results Act.  It wasn’t too long ago when it was a big deal that agencies shortened their year-end reporting from 6 months after the end of the fiscal year to 6 weeks after the end of the fiscal year.   Today, the new expectation is that performance results should be continually available – ideally in real-time.

The Poster Child for Real-Time Results:  Recovery.gov.  The poster child for this new expectation is the Recovery Act’s website, www.recovery.gov.  OMB requires weekly reports from agencies on progress on monies going out to states and localities.  Each agency and each state also have their own websites, as well.  The recovery.gov website has been criticized for only reporting spending and not results, such as jobs created (which is actually a bit unfair, given that these projects are just getting underway!).  Still, the law requires the first real quarterly reports on progress and results from about 200,000 reporting entities (e.g., states, localities, contractors) in October.  And OMB is still fine-tuning the guidance for what should each type of entity be reporting.

An Early Adopter:  Millennial Challenge Corp.  But recovery.gov isn’t the only federal effort committed to reporting more regularly on program results.  Yesterday, I was invited to the unveiling of a results-oriented website created by the Millennium Challenge Corporation.  Hopefully, this is the beginning of a broader, governmentwide trend!

Here’s a quick snapshot of what I learned:

What is the MCC?  Launching a results-oriented reporting system is a natural for MCC, given its origin and mission.  MCC was created in 2004 as a different way of providing foreign aid.  As a separate, independent agency, MCC doesn’t just fund a wide range of projects in different countries. It focuses specifically on reducing poverty by partnering with host countries to make them more responsible for their own development.  It signs a compact — the equivalent of a performance agreement — for a multi-year period with the host country and monitors progress on a range of indicators tied to program performance (e.g., economic rates of return) and poverty reduction.

MCC starts with a set of selection criteria that determine whether a country can even qualify for participation.  These criteria include ruling justly, investing in people, and encouraging economic freedom.  About 30 countries are eligible to apply.  To date, 18 have signed 5-year compacts for grants totaling $6.3 billion.  At this point, MCC estimates that the rate of return for this investment will be about $8 billion in increased income, benefiting 22 million people – broken out by country and by project.

The MCC’s Performance System.  In launching MCC’s web-based performance system, acting chief executive Rodney Bent said in his blog: “I’m pleased to draw your attention to the newest feature on MCC’s website:  a dedicated section on results.  This one-stop resource is the first step in an evolving compilation of MCC’s results. . . .”  The site allows you to:

  • View country and thematic monitoring and evaluation information.
  • Understand evaluation criteria and performance measures, such as economic rates of return.
  • Track progress on a quarterly basis.

What does this look like?  Let’s take one country (not unlike looking at a single state’s website in the Recovery.gov world):

Armenia:  An Example of Country-Level Reporting.  The MCC website summarizes project expenditure rates and progress to date in Armenia, but more importantly, the local Armenian partner for the program runs its own website (which is conveniently translated into English as well!).

Both the MCC and local sites, like the one for Armenia, are still evolving.  They still have a number of documents in PDF format, but the locally-run site for Armenia is beginning to geo-map the locations of projects by region and posting their plans, expenditures, and surveys used to assess progress.  They also post some success stories to give a flavor of what is happening, which may (in some cases) be more compelling than just data. . . and these are similar to the approaches states are taking in reporting on their Recovery Act monies!

Implications.  Both cases (MCC and Recovery Act reporting)  are examples of pioneering new approaches that could well have a far broader impact.  Putting measures of results out there will likely touch off discussions, and possible adoption, of common standards for how to measure the results of a range of programs.  In the foreign aid community, this might reach across different aid agencies and different countries and non-profits providing aid.  In the Recovery Act, it might be the development of common results measures reaching across states, localities, and the more than 300 programs funded by the Act. . . and possible programs beyond the Act.

Productivity vs. Performance Measures

July 14, 2009

I went to a high-powered panel presentation last week sponsored by the Center for American Progress on “Government’s Productivity Imperative” and it left me a bit nervous.  It was inspired by a McKinsey article on productivity and it urges the Obama Administration to adopt productivity improvement approaches that could save $45 billion to $134 billion a year, noting “. . . an imperative for dramatic productivity improvement in government that will delivery better results for citizens.”  A companion McKinsey report noted that the federal government last measured its own productivity in 1994 and hypothesized that government productivity lags private sector productivity.

The McKinsey authors believe that reinstituting productivity measures would create public pressures to improve productivity and save money:   “Measure productivity again, providing an ongoing, transparent indicator of progress. Set an ambitious national government productivity target to match private sector rates of growth.”  The Washington Post breathlessly called this a “Productivity Revolution.”

I’m not as confident that this would be the case.  Doing so would take years and millions of dollars to reinstitute the measures.  Government could do better by emphasizing improved performance and results, instead.  It already has that information.

In fact, the McKinsey article observes:  “Making the performance of governments more transparent by publishing the results of customer satisfaction surveys, benchmarking surveys, and service-quality metrics also help citizens to take an active role in demanding change and applying appropriate pressure for performance improvement.”

Why return to the days of the Carter Productivity Improvement Programs and arbitrary targets of 10 percent productivity improvement in each agency, accompanied by savings demands that may or may not be possible?

What is productivity?  According to the McKinsey researchers, “Productivity is the amount and quality of the goods and services that can be generated with a given set of inputs.” 

Why doesn’t government measure its own productivity?  The Bureau of Labor Statistics used to measure federal productivity but stopped collecting this information in 1996.  At that point in time, productivity lagged private sector and McKinsey’s report concluded “our hypothesis is that, since then, this gap may well have grown.”   They then base their projected savings on this hypothesis.

I was involved in terminating government productivity measures when I was working for the Reinventing Government initiative.  The methodology was specious – largely self-reported data on administrative processes and not government mission-related work.   There was also a 2-year lag in the data reported, so it was largely useless to make decisions.  More importantly, government could not measure its inputs.  And even 19 years after the Chief Financial Officers Act was passed, government still has no activity-based costing so it can measure inputs.  This is a fatal flaw in measuring the inputs for a productivity measure.

There are also problems with measuring the amount and quality of government services produced.  Some economists conclude that in a service economy, especially the government, “the concept of productivity has become meaningless.”  They say productivity measures capture only one dimension of performance – that performance can be assessed by different stakeholders with different sets of values.  In some cases, equity and fairness is as (or more) important than cost efficiency.  In addition, there is controversy among economists as to how to best measure productivity of services that are unpriced, like government services.  How do you measure the productivity of firefighters?  By the number of fires they put out?  What if they are successful at preventing fires? Does that mean their productivity drops? . . . What about the productivity of national defense? . . . how do you account for a service that produces a “collective good?”

Fixing these technical problems with productivity measures would have cost millions and take years to implement.   It seemed better to kill them because occasionally the data were used to set arbitrary savings targets (see the Reagan productivity initiative) that led to a waste of time and energy.  One veteran of the process called it “a fool’s errand.”  And there was the fear that targets would be set politically, savings claimed, then it would be up to agencies to find ways to cut their budgets to meet these productivity targets.  No wonder productivity had such a bad name in government!

Other countries have developed better measures of government productivity, but the question in the U.S. is, is it worth the time and cost if there are other approaches to get at the same end?  This is hinted at in the McKinsey report.

Still, there is value in performance transparency.  The McKinsey report reaches beyond its initial emphasis on productivity.  It also notes that it is important to create more transparency in agency and program performance through greater comparability, accessibility and independence in the scrutiny of government data.  This can be done – and be agency- and mission-specific – using performance measures to assess progress and results.  This doesn’t require productivity measures.

In fact, this is being done today via agency measures of programs.  President Obama has directed agencies to identify their most important goals by July 30th.   He says he’ll have his chief performance officer track and report to him on their progress.

This performance transparency can be to the public, or even just to government leaders.  The British government, under Tony Blair, created a “Delivery Unit” to track the key goals important to the Prime Minister.  The meetings of ministers that Barber organized to go over their agencies’ performance were closed to the public in order to ensure the discussions were candid.  However, the results were periodically reports publicly.  This kind of approach is being piloted in several U.S. state governments and cities. 

The leader of that unit, Michael Barber, said:  “Different public services will need different approaches to reform. The same services will need different approaches at different times.”  This was also the conclusion of several of the panelists at the Center for American Progress forum, as well. 


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