Recent high-profile failures by the Secret Service and at the Veterans Health Administration have given plenty of ammunition to late-night comedians and conservative talk-show hosts who delight in riffing on the federal government’s stumbles. Less dramatic, but just as troubling to anyone who cares about effective government, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) provided much more systematic and telling evidence of federal management malpractice in a report to Congress last month: “Managing For Results: Agencies’ Trends in the Use of Performance Information to Make Decisions.”
GAO’s report shows that when it comes to federal agencies using performance information to manage their work more effectively, things are not getting better—in fact if anything they are getting worse. Comparing 2007 and 2013 surveys of 4,400 federal managers across the 24 largest federal agencies regarding the use of performance information in their work, GAO found that “that most agencies showed no statistically significant change in use during this period….only two agencies experienced a statistically significant improvement in the use of performance information. During the same period, four agencies experienced a statistically significant decline in the use of performance information.” (It’s worth noting that one of the regressing agencies was the Department of Veterans Affairs.)
Who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs? It is tempting to point the finger squarely at the President. After all, he runs the executive branch, and the buck stops there, right? Certainly a big part of it does. And, as the botched healthcare.gov rollout showed, this administration has stumbled on the implementation of even some of its most important priorities.
But Congress is also to blame. GAO, the independent and scrupulously non-partisan investigative arm of Congress, has been observing and reporting shortcomings in how federal agencies use (or fail to use) basic performance information for years. In 1993, Congress passed the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), which required that federal agencies for the first time engage in the basic disciplines of goal setting, performance measurement, and reporting. In 2010, Congress passed another law modernizing GPRA. A major thrust of both pieces of legislation was to ensure Congress has better information about executive branch performance to inform its own deliberations.
A wag might suggest that GAO should survey members of Congress and their staffs to ascertain just how much information about agency performance really matters to them when they are authorizing and appropriating funds for the work of these agencies. My strong hypothesis would be that such information is even less relevant in Congress than it is in the executive branch.
How can Congress better focus on and use agency performance information in its own decision-making? The problem here is that this requires qualities that are in increasingly short supply on Capitol Hill: deep policy expertise, inquiring minds, a functional committee system, a determination not just to surface problems but solve them, and—not least—a willingness to work with people with whom one disagrees.
We have been told by several observers and allies that these attributes are those of a bygone Congress, and that productive legislative oversight of the executive branch is dead in a polarized age. But we are not ready to write it off. It’s hard for us to see how we can have effective government, problem-solving in Congress, or representative democracy, for that matter, without it.
The Madison Initiative has thus made a set of grants to explore whether it might be possible to improve congressional oversight and the broader nexus between Congress and the executive branch. We are supporting a revitalization of the Project on Government Oversight’s well-regarded bipartisan Congressional Oversight Training for staff and committees. We are also funding the Partnership for Public Service to assess where and how executive branch dysfunction could be reduced by improving how Congress functions, and what it would take to bring this about. We will keep you posted on what we are learning through the work of these grantees.