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From Bush, an Order for Agencies to Track Progress

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, November 15, 2007

With his administration nearing its end, President Bush this week issued an executive order imposing accountability for how each federal agency sets targets for improving the performance of its programs and tracks progress.

The order requires agency heads to set goals, develop ways to measure progress, use performance data in budget requests and set up Web sites that describe "the successes, shortfalls and challenges of each program" and efforts to improve them.

The order directs agencies to appoint a "performance improvement officer" who will coordinate "sufficiently aggressive" goals and plans for programs. It also creates a "performance improvement council" within the Office of Management and Budget so that agencies and the office can coordinate efforts.

Because of its timing, Bush's order likely means that the next White House will inherit a network of agency officials responsible for improving federal programs. The next White House will decide whether to stick with Bush's approach, repackage it or drop it.

By the end of 2008, the Bush administration intends to tell Congress which program goals each agency has promised to accomplish and by what date they will show results, according to Clay Johnson III, deputy director for management at the OMB.

"There should be no dropped batons going from this administration to the next administration," he said. "The next administration will come in knowing what every department is committed to do. It will help ensure there is continuous attention to these goals."

In theory, executive orders are binding on agencies until they are overridden or modified by a new presidential order. In fact, while they carry the formal trappings of presidential power, they can end up being ignored inside agencies.

"You never know from an executive order. They can do something or not do something. Who knows," said Robert D. Behn, a performance-management expert who teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He added, "the real implementation will be whether the next guy does it or not. We're already into the fiscal year; it is unlikely that this executive order will have an impact on this year's behavior."

Paul C. Light, a New York University professor who specializes in public service, said he did not think Bush's order "will have any impact on either the budget or agency performance. That will have to wait for the next administration. Without calling this the last gasp, it has the feel of wasted motion."

But other public policy analysts called Bush's order important, in part because agencies are under pressure to show taxpayers what they get for their bucks. Agencies are increasingly faulted for mismanagement, or, as in the case of Hurricane Katrina, for failing to deliver services. Many political appointees stay on the job for less than two years, making it difficult to address the long-term needs of the government.

Jonathan D. Breul, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, said the executive order "aims broadly at the question of government performance" and is geared to "continually improving the programmatic performance of the government as a whole."

Breul and Patricia McGinnis, president of the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government, said that the executive order does not break new ground because agencies were handed a law 14 years ago that required them to set strategic goals and improve programs.

"But putting it into a framework does help for continuity," McGinnis said.

Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said the executive order should help agencies collect better information on their operations. "It's not that we lack data in the government, it's that we lack useful data," he said.

Bush signed the executive order Tuesday, and the White House released it Tuesday evening. Work on the order began about a month ago, Johnson said. The order calls for a "formal commitment to effectiveness and greater effectiveness every year," he said.

"There are a lot of documents that refer to, 'we shall spend the money effectively,' " Johnson said, "but doing it more effectively every year is a mind-set and a commitment we're generally not set up to deliver on."

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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