GAO: Performance Management in Federal Agencies May Be Stalled

Overall use of performance information by federal agencies has not changed significantly since Congress enacted legislation governing federal performance management in 2011, according to a report released September 26 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report suggests that its use could increase if agencies more widely adopted five leading performance management practices.

Congress last updated the primary federal law governing performance management, the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), in 2011. The original law was enacted in 1993 during the first year of the Clinton administration. (For a longer overview of federal performance management efforts over the years, see A Short History of Data-Driven Government in The Washington Monthly.)

The new law, called the GPRA Modernization Act, created Chief Operating Officers (COOs) and Performance improvement officers (PIOs) in each agency to oversee management and performance. It also formally authorized a Performance Improvement Council (PIC), previously established by executive order, to coordinate federal performance management efforts between departments.

Modeled to some extent on state and city-level performance-based efforts like CitiStat in Baltimore, the new law instituted quarterly performance reviews in each agency to hold them accountable for results. Information about these efforts is being published on a federal web site,

GAO has been tasked by Congress with reviewing the law’s implementation. For this report, it surveyed several thousand mid- and upper-level federal agency managers in 2013 and compared the results to a similar survey conducted in 2007, before the law was updated. Based on the two surveys, GAO concluded that the use of performance information by federal managers has remained largely unchanged.

GAO did find significant differences between federal agencies, however. According to the report, the Department of Labor has substantially improved and now ranks third among all 24 of the departments and major federal agencies it reviewed. By comparison, the Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, and HUD have all remained about average.

These conclusions, however, may be premature. According to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which is tasked with overseeing the law, federal agencies did not begin formally reviewing their progress toward achieving their strategic goals until earlier this year, after GAO had completed its survey.

More Widely Adopting Five Leading Practices Could Improve Results

According to GAO, data-driven decision-making leads to better results. But, according to an earlier report, “the benefit of collecting performance information is only fully realized when this information is actually used by managers to make decisions.”

In its analysis, GAO found a strong correlation between the use of performance information by federal agencies and five sets of practices that it had identified in its previous work. Implementation of these practices accounted for nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of the variation in performance usage observed by the managers surveyed.

These practices are:

  1. Demonstrated Management Commitment: According to GAO, demonstrated commitment by leadership and management to using performance information encourages others to do so too. In its survey, GAO found that 60 percent of federal managers said their top leadership demonstrated this commitment.
  2. Alignment of Agency-wide Goals, Objectives, and Measures: According to GAO, the use of performance information increases when program performance measures are aligned with agency-wide goals and objectives. GAO found that only 46 percent of federal managers agreed that managers at their level in their agencies took steps to align their performance measures this way.
  3. Usefulness: GAO found that agency usage of performance information depends significantly on whether the information is seen as complete, accurate, consistent, timely, valid, and easy to use. However, GAO said that only 36 percent of federal managers felt their performance data was valid. This was the strongest single contributor to their opinions on agency performance management efforts overall.
  4. Building Capacity: GAO indicated that the use of performance information is hindered by inadequate staff expertise. It found that managers were more likely to rate their agencies positively when they provided training that showed them how to tie performance information to their decisions. However, it found that only 44 percent reported that their agencies provided such training. Other types of training that did not appear to be strongly related to performance information use included training on: (1) setting program performance goals; (2) assessing the quality of performance data; and (3) linking program performance to agency strategic plans.
  5. Communicating Performance Information Frequently and Effectively: GAO said that communication is important to help managers inform their staff and other stakeholders about their commitment to achieve agency goals and to help agency staff keep these goals in mind as they pursue their day-to-day activities. However, GAO found that only 41 percent said that managers and supervisors at their level effectively communicated this information. It found that 42 percent said that employees in their agency received positive recognition for helping the agency accomplish its strategic goals.
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