Urban Wire Measuring government performance is important but not easy
Harry P. Hatry
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Early on, the Obama Administration introduced a fine idea: Set a few key priorities that are important to the public and track progress over time.  Back in June 2009, all federal departments were asked to set “ambitious, but realistic, targets” to be achieved within 18 to 24 months.  And the President’s FY2011 budget show-cased about 125 high performance goals. This simple, but neat idea was so good that Congress incorporated it in the latest version of the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), which requires the federal government to report on its performance.

As with all such good ideas, implementing well is a big problem.  The goals agencies selected are something of a mish-mash.  Some are mere counts of numbers of persons to be served — not the number who actually benefit.  For example, under “foreclosure prevention” (certainly a major goal for any President in today’s world) the Department of Housing and Urban Development set targets for the number of homeowners “assisted,” but doesn’t say anything about the number that will actually be saved from foreclosure.  Similarly, the Justice Department mostly tracks law enforcement effort, not number of crimes prevented or criminals apprehended.  And although the Department of Education offers up the laudable goals of improved school readiness and higher graduation rates, it doesn’t attach any solid numbers to those goals.

It’s not surprising that the departments were so cautious.  Achieving really meaningful end-accomplishments is difficult and risky – failure could bite politically.  And after all, 2009 was the first effort at high priority goal-setting.  Nonetheless, I’m disappointed that we haven’t seen major improvements in the administration’s goals and targets since June 2009.  In fact, the President’s latest budget document doesn’t even discuss the priority targets and no information about goal achievement has been publicly released.

If the Obama Administration is serious about setting and achieving high-priority goals, I’d like to see some more meaningful goals – targets that signal real improvements in people’s lives – along with solid information about accomplishments to date.

Research Methods Performance measurement and management