Jerry Ellig, Maurice McTigue, and Henry Wray, Government Performance and Results: An Evaluation of GPRA's First Decade (Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, 2012)
Reviewed by Jason Juffras
Performance measurement and accountability have long served as watchwords for government reformers across the political spectrum. More than two decades ago, David Osborne and Ted Gaebler published Reinventing Government, a bestselling manifesto for more responsive, "mission-driven" and "results-oriented" government. In 1993, Vice President Gore's "National Performance Review" issued its blueprint for a government that "works better, costs less, and gets results Americans care about." That same year, the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), which required federal agencies to engage in strategic planning, performance measurement, and performance reporting, sailed through both houses of Congress and became law.
Although GPRA has endured—all agencies have prepared annual performance plans and reports since fiscal year 1999—the law has never had the transformative impact its sponsors intended. (In fact, GPRA lists as the law's first purpose "to improve the confidence of the American people in the capability of the Federal Government, by systematically holding Federal agencies accountable for achieving program results.") Studies by the U.S. Government Accountability Office have shown that GPRA has increased the availability of performance data at the federal level, but the information is rarely used to shape policy, budget, or management decisions. Performance measurement has remained a lofty ideal, an abstraction that is difficult to put into practice.
Fortunately for those who want to infuse public policy with a stronger results orientation, Jerry Ellig, Maurice McTigue, and Henry Wray provide a detailed road map in Government Performance and Results: An Evaluation of GPRA's First Decade. Drawing on their painstaking work at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, where they produced an annual Performance Report Scorecard on agency GPRA reports from 1999 to 2008, the authors explain almost every aspect of performance measurement and accountability in admirable specificity. Government Performance and Results provides an invaluable resource for public managers at every level, as well as for citizens concerned about good government.
A Tool for Improving Lives
Ellig, McTigue, and Wray show how to design performance measures, set challenging targets, ensure data quality, and report results to the public (and political overseers) in clear, compelling language. A particular strength is that the authors use dozens of examples from GPRA plans and reports to illustrate their points, reminding us that performance measurement should not be an idle exercise but rather a tool for improving people's lives. For example, they recount how the Coast Guard used performance measurement to target the greatest threats to life and safety, slashing the industry fatality rate by 70 percent in five years. (See the article on performance measurement as exemplified by the Coast Guard, p. 32.)
Ellig and colleagues also provide multiple perspectives on performance measurement, analyzing transportation performance reports from Colorado, Connecticut, and Florida, and from Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom (McTigue was a member of New Zealand's Parliament and its Cabinet, and also served as New Zealand's ambassador to Canada and the Caribbean). One insight is that other nations measure performance over longer periods than the United States, which requires annual reporting. Longer time frames may be particularly appropriate for policy areas such as education, the environment, and health, where changes take hold slowly. The long view also may ease pressures to focus on less meaningful measures that can be manipulated for political gain but do not have lasting impact on people's well-being.
An emphasis on democratic accountability (with a small "d") infuses the book. Ellig, McTigue, and Wray persuasively argue that government regulation and tax expenditures (the numerous credits, deductions, and exclusions that support a vast array of public interests and constituencies) should be subject to performance measurement and reporting because they represent major commitments of resources to serve public ends. More generally, the authors see strategic planning, performance measurement, and performance measurement as integral to transparency and integrity among public officials. They insist that government performance plans and reports candidly assess agency management challenges, disclose successes and failures, connect results with costs, and present plans to correct shortcomings.
Faith in Government Objectivity?
If there is a flaw to this work, it is that the authors place too much faith in the willingness—and capability—of government officials to clearly and candidly disclose their results. Ellig, McTigue, and Wray are well aware of the ways that public leaders can evade performance accountability; at one point, they chastise the Small Business Administration (SBA) for setting performance targets below prior-year performance levels—a stratagem that helped the SBA greatly exceed its targets. But with personal reputations, political power, resources, and perhaps program existence itself on the line, the authors may overestimate the possibility of forthright, self-critical performance reporting. It may be necessary to supplement self-reported agency data with much more extensive and diverse external assessments, such as ratings by trained observers.
Even if we presume good faith on the part of our political leaders, what some see as clear and objective measures (such as the percentage of sexually-active teens following safe-sex practices) will be hotly contested by others (who may see the percentage of sexually-active teens as the problem). Politics may permeate the practice of performance measurement and accountability as much as—or more than—performance measurement and accountability purifies politics of its puffery and self-promotion.
Ellig, McTigue, and Wray also present evidence that Congress has typically shown less interest in performance measurement and accountability than the executive branch, a pattern they attribute largely to the parochial focus of legislators intent on benefiting their district or state, often at the expense of the rest of the nation. But the problem may be even more complicated. Congress is deeply divided and polarized ideologically, to such an extent that it is difficult for legislators to agree on strategic goals, much less how to use performance data to make hard-nosed decisions about budget and policy. Due to the nation's severe economic and fiscal problems, Ellig, McTigue, and Wray expect that, "(T)he day may be fast approaching when performance accountability and outcome-oriented policy making will (must) become a reality," but there are no hints of such a welcome change thus far.
These caveats notwithstanding, Ellig, McTigue, and Wray have made a valuable contribution to public management and public policy in Government Performance and Results: An Evaluation of GPRA's First Decade. Those who engage in the hard and often prosaic work of defining, measuring, and explaining government performance will find this book to be an essential resource.