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On Performance

Originally published April 14, 2009

The Federal government will finally have a Chief Performance Officer. President Obama will shortly name his new candidate to fill the job. (His first nominee, Nancy Killefer, withdrew her nomination over a “nanny tax” issue.) The need for this role, popularized, if not invented, by Tony Politano in his much touted 2003 book, Chief Performance Officer, had become a rallying cry for many both inside and outside government. Shock after shock over $15,000 toilet seats, trillion dollar deficits and a tragically impressive collection of failed federal programs became the drivers for a federal CPO. (Not to be confused with the Chief People Officer.)

So the focus has turned to performance. Interestingly enough, President Obama’s inaugural speech departed from the previous themes of big government versus small government as he posited the need for a “government that works.” That chimes right in with the topic at hand since the applicable definition of performance we find in the dictionary is, “the manner in which or the efficiency with which something reacts or fulfills its intended purpose.” In other words: what works and how well it works. “Government that works,” echoed President Obama on inauguration day.

Not that there haven’t been previous attempts at getting a handle on these key concerns. Falling within the purview of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the previous administration launched its President’s Management Agenda in 2001 with an aggressive plan to address performance. It identified five key areas of focus, two of which had a performance tag right in their monikers – 1. Strategic Management of Human Capital, 2. Competitive Sourcing, 3. Improved Financial Performance, 4. Expanded Electronic Government and 5. Budget and Performance Integration – and developed a red, yellow and blue scorecard to publish the status, ranking and progress of federal agencies with respect to each one.

But progress on measuring program performance has still been slow in coming. We are still lacking a rigorous, methodic and comprehensive approach to measure how well the government is doing. Attempts to manage government as a business entity go back, in modern times, basically, to the Government Performance and Accountability Act (GPRA) that Congress passed in 1993. After that, OMB implemented the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) as a way of having agencies report and evaluate their programs. There are, however, considerable lag times and huge variability in reporting financial and other metrics. They are all over the map, and the focus has been on person-hours expended and/or dollars spent rather than on outcomes. Instead of reporting how much and where the quality of air had improved due to an environmental program, the easy way out was to publish how many engineers were assigned to the project and how many dollars were funding it. It has not been effective, and performance measurement is still a sorry state of affairs.

Recently there was a report published by the IBM Center for The Business of Government, in Washington, DC, that provides some helpful directions.

Managers also failed to use performance data properly, according to Shelley Metzenbaum, author of the document who advised the data in these agency reports should be used "diagnostically not unlike a doctor would…on goal-focused, data-driven discussion."

This now moves us squarely into the familiar territory of business intelligence. “Goal-focused, data-driven.” Isn’t this what it is all about? The need to make policy decisions on the most solid analytical base? And to do this, one has to gather the relevant data, construct the hypotheses, do the analysis, interpret the data and, from here, make recommendations for courses of action. Familiar territory indeed!

Metzenbaum’s report offered many suggestions for the new administration. Among them:

  • Identify clear presidential and Cabinet priorities, assigning responsibility for them and meeting at least quarterly with Cabinet members to assess progress;
  • Run goal-focused, data-driven meetings on priority targets;
  • Direct the new chief performance officer to encourage increased analysis of performance and other relevant data pertaining to presidential, cross-agency, agency and program goals.

In addition, it advises OMB to “Direct agencies and programs to set targets and track specific real-world performance trends; redesign the government's federal performance Web site to make it easier to find performance trends, targets and other related information; create agency-specific, Web-based performance portals, accessible through agency home pages.”

These are all very welcome recommendations that well converge with the business intelligence set of priorities because that what business intelligence is all about.

  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel


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