"Everything can be measured, and what gets measured gets managed," runs the uncompromising business mantra, usually attributed to worldwide management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
While this oft-repeated jingle has become an orthodoxy for the business world, successive administrations have long wondered whether the same truth holds for the $2 trillion spent every year on 1,000 or so federal programs.
How well does the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative measure up against children's mental health services or the Defense Department's air combat program? Or is it nonsense to pit one against the other, even though they all receive money from the public purse?
For decades, the executive branch and Congress have sweated over this conundrum. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson tried the "Planning, Programming and Budgeting System" to bring federal programs to order. President Richard M. Nixon introduced "Management by Objective," which aimed to nail down the goals of federal programs. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter introduced "zero-based budgeting," which demanded that programs regularly prove their value to justify their money.
Remnants of some of these initiatives continue into the 21st century, but most were "doomed by congressional inertia and bureaucratic indifference," in the words of William D. Eggers of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
Then, three years ago, President Bush announced his own performance-rating initiative, the Program Assessment Rating Tool or PART. "The measure of compassion is more than good intentions, it is good results. Sympathy is not enough," he said in April 2002, a statement with echoes of the McKinsey-attributed philosophy.
The PART system, run by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), rates programs under four headings: purpose, strategic planning, management and results. The OMB gathers information using a 25-point questionnaire, then ranks a program on a four-point scale, from "effective" to "ineffective." Another category, "results not demonstrated," is used where the program has not developed acceptable performance measures or collected relevant data.
Since the program began, OMB has rated 607 of 1,000 programs, and deemed 22 ineffective, 406 adequate or better, and 179 where results are not demonstrated.
As far as OMB Deputy Director Clay Johnson III is concerned, the tool has proved its worth by helping programs help themselves. Speaking last week before a House subcommittee, he pointed to the rise in the number of programs rated effective, moderately effective or adequate, from 57 percent in 2003 to 67 percent in 2005.
PART has also won praise from some government watchers, and yesterday received the Innovations in American Government Award from the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University, in partnership with the Council for Excellence in Government.
"PART is so important, because it's institutionalizing a systematic look at how programs are performing and making possible the comparison of one program with another," said Patricia McGinnis, president and chief executive of the council and one of the award's judges. "It's drawing attention to programs which are clearly ineffective or we have no idea how they are doing."
Notwithstanding such praise, there are questions about the efficacy of the PART program, even if it makes sense for the public sector.
"The missing piece is that Congress is not yet using this information," McGinnis said. "It's not the way that they typically manage appropriations, and, ultimately, in order to be effective, the members of the Appropriations Committee will hopefully take this into consideration when they make their funding decision."
Johnson acknowledges that lawmakers are ignoring PART. "It is not clear that PART has had any significant impact on congressional authorization, appropriations and oversight, at least, to date," he said in June.
Moreover, PART has not been embraced consistently across the agencies. The Education Department marked all five of its programs ranked "ineffective" for termination in the current round. Eileen Norcross, a research fellow for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said: "Though PART was developed as a tool to help the Executive to make informed decisions about budget cuts, increases and terminations, it was not the only factor used to make termination and reduction decisions in the 2006 proposed budget."
Then there is the question of whether the PART results are sufficiently independent because the tool is administered from the White House. Comptroller General David M. Walker said at a Senate hearing last month that the Government Accountability Office or another objective organization should be brought in to provide an independent assessment of PART evaluations.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) wondered: "How sure . . . can we be that there is no political urging, to use the politest term I can?"
Johnson, not surprisingly, is sure. "I feel comfortable that there is good assessment from both objective and pride of authorship for the people involved in the program's standpoint," he said at the hearing. "The questions that are asked are generic in nature but very, very focused on whether the programs are working or not."
Johnson also rejects suggestions, such as those of Harvard lecturer Robert D. Behn, that such systems are counterproductive when they impose management techniques on federal programs. "Systems don't improve performance; leaders do," Behn wrote in the January issue of Public Management Report. "The rules of any system (for performance or anything else) are not designed to elicit discernment and adaptation. They are created to impose obedience and conformity."
Not so, says Johnson, who wants to see "civil service modernization government-wide, as it helps create an environment where people, managers in particular, are held more accountable for how their programs perform."
McGinnis and Norcross are focusing on smaller victories. They both praise the fact that all PART results have been put on the White House Web site. "I think ultimately it will be used by the public to hold government to account. The information is already online," McGinnis said. "If it can be made more user-friendly and the information boiled down, it becomes a report card for government."