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GPRA Modernization Act: Improving Performance in the Federal Government

Originally published February 14, 2012

As we move further into the election year of 2012, it may be an appropriate time to revisit one of the most promising initiatives launched by the Obama Administration shortly after its inauguration: improving performance.

In effect, we saw how in early 2009 the first-ever chief performance officer (CPO) for the federal government was named by President Obama. This signified ownership, and with that ownership we have actually seen progress within the executive branch.

With the delivery of the president’s FY 2010 budget, the outline of the administration’s management agenda emerged around six themes:

  • Putting Performance First: Replacing PART with a New Performance Improvement and Analysis Framework
  • Ensuring Responsible Spending of Recovery Act Funds 
  • Transforming the Federal Workforce 
  • Managing Across Sectors 
  • Reforming Federal Contracting and Acquisition 
  • Transparency, Technology, and Participatory Democracy
The fact that “putting performance first” leads the agenda is very encouraging, specifically because it addresses the need to replace Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) as the principal vehicle for evaluating the performance of federal programs. PART has been in place since the George W. Bush Administration (2002) and has been used with mixed results for the last decade.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; we will go back to PART later. Since all things executive branch lead back to some legislative branch authorization and appropriation action, history takes us to the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA). Passed in 1993, GPRA tried to pursue the much touted goal of getting government to perform like business. The statute required agencies to develop five-year strategic plans that clearly defined their mission and also laid out long-term goals for its major functions. In addition, GPRA also mandated agencies to prepare annual performance plans in which goals for each fiscal year were established and a narrative was presented describing how these goals were to be met and results verified. Lastly, it required annual performance reports back to Congress relative to their targeted performance goals.

But government is what it is, and progress on issues like “performance and results” moved at a very slow pace. Therefore, 17 years later, Congress felt compelled to enact “Son of GPRA” or the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010. GPRA was clearly needed in 1993 and we can note important accomplishments tied to the legislation, but the glacial pace of progress was maddening. In 1993, the Internet was in its infancy, the term eGovernment had not been coined, Google, YouTube and Twitter didn’t exist, and Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was nine years old. It is apparent that by 2010, GPRA modernization was long overdue.

So, what does the new law do? It creates a more defined performance framework for each agency, but more importantly, it gives “performance and results” an owner by designating the agency deputy head as chief operating officer (COO) and creating a specific to-do list. Each agency under the COO’s tutelage must:
  1. Set priority goals
  2. Name a senior official responsible for each goal
  3. Name performance improvement officers (PIOs)
  4. Review progress for each goal quarterly
Because it is the executive branch’s job to implement and enforce legislation, the GPRA Modernization Act must have an owner within the executive branch and that honor falls to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) which is part of the Executive Office of the President. To that effect, the White House issues executive orders (E.O.s) and usually OMB follows up with memoranda that provide further guidance to the rest of the federal agencies. The most relevant documents to date providing guidance on performance and specifically on GPRA Modernization are Executive Order 13576 “Delivering an Efficient, Effective and Accountable Government” (6/13/11) and the OMB Memorandum on Executive Order 13576 (8/17/11).

Executive orders attempt to provide the links between the legislation and the “when, what, how and who” necessary for its implementation. As would be expected, the CPO has the main responsibility, but CFOs and other officials at each agency are tasked with specific duties and obligations. Since the devil is always in the details, E.O. 13576, at only three pages in length, delegates the heavy lifting to OMB on additional guidance – hence the 40-page OMB Memorandum dated 8/17/11 that truly lays out the groundwork.

It presents the four principal objectives for federal performance management:
  1. Effective government
  2. Efficient, productive government
  3. Open and transparent government that engages the public
  4. Fair, equitable and honest government
It reminds us of the importance of metrics to gauge performance and then tasks everyone with some role in the process, including the COO, goal leaders, bureau/component heads, program managers and their employees, regional offices, delivery partners, etc.

Most importantly it mandates a framework for “goal-setting at all levels of the agency; assuring timely, actionable performance information is available to decision makers at all levels of the organization; conducting frequent data-driven reviews that guide decisions and actions to improve performance outcomes and reduce costs.”

It also forces each agency to name a performance improvement officer (PIO) with the responsibility for making it happen. The PIO may have a staff or be forced to utilize other resources within their agency. But ultimately they have the responsibility for performance improvement, and that means business intelligence. Short of sheer luck, all improvement is based on analysis. In this case, the law and the OMB memorandum are clear on how that should be done, emphasizing that decision makers must have “actionable performance information” and conduct “frequent data reviews.” The time of the BI practitioners has arrived in the federal government. How can GPRA Modernization and performance improvement be accomplished without business intelligence? This moves the ball forward substantially toward a culture of analysis in the federal government. It is about time.
  • 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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