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Friday, October 17, 2008

Bush performance rating tool draws plaudits, pans

As the Bush presidency winds down, performance reviews of the administration's Program Assessment Rating Tool are mixed.

Proponents of PART, which uses a standard questionnaire to assess and improve every federal program, laud the tool for providing a wealth of new performance data, while critics argue that it fails to recognize the diversity of individual programs, among other things.

The two groups made their respective cases in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday.
Beryl Radin, a professor at American University, argued at the American Bar Association's Administrative Law Conference on Thursday that PART and the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act were too narrow in scope to meet their goals.

Both concepts, she said, focused on holding federal employees accountable for outcomes and results, but did not incorporate the cause of those outcomes -- such as air quality or the number of drunk driving fatalities -- into their analyses.

The difficulty of measuring how well programs and individual agencies are meeting their statutory missions is not new.

Sid Shapiro, a law professor at Wake Forest University, said GPRA -- passed during the Clinton administration -- has failed to promote effective regulatory government because its inherent goal is to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse and then punish underperforming agencies by cutting their budgets. Consequently, agencies attempt to protect themselves by devising "euphemistic performance goals in order to assure that they can pass their own grading criteria," Shapiro wrote in an essay presented at the forum.

Annual GPRA reports, he said, rarely mention the agency's lack of funding or staff reductions, and how those challenges may affect their performance.

Robert Shea, OMB's former associate director of administration and government performance and one of the architects of PART, addressed the merits and relative successes of the tool during a virtual forum on Wednesday hosted by Cognos, an IBM company.

After more than six years, PART now has evaluated every federal program -- more than 1,000 in total -- and suggested specific management, legislative or regulatory improvements.
When PART began in 2002, 50 percent of all federal programs evaluated could not demonstrate their results and only 6 percent were rated "effective." Now, nearly 50 percent of all programs are rated as "effective" or "moderately effective" while less than 20 percent are ranked as "results not demonstrated."

The focus of these evaluations also has evolved, Shea said. For example, until recently small business development centers only measured the number of small businesses they counseled or trained. Now the centers look at the number of jobs created. Likewise, community health centers previously measured how many people they provided service to; now the target is health outcomes such as low birth weight in babies.

-Robert Brodsky, GovExec.com
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