In a recent Bulwark article, American Enterprise Institute scholar James Capretta analyzed the past three decades of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 and provides a candid historical synopsis of how performance management has matured (or faltered) in federal agencies over this period. He also makes some pointed claims about the perceived lack of interest from Congress or the general public regarding the President’s Management Agenda. And in an unfortunate but honest assessment, the piece showcases how each new management agenda often resolves to enact top-down mandates on agencies, rather than incentivizing new innovations from federal departments.
What the piece does not raise, but what may be the biggest problem with a successful PMA, are the actual managers themselves. Not the mid-level supervisors in various agency bureaus, but the professional-managerial structure — predominantly housed within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the General Services Administration (GSA) — who dream up and attempt to impose new PMA requirements on agencies every four years. Even worse, most management agendas are created without any consultation with Congress, which is both against the clear letter of the law and ensures that no lawmakers are likely to partner with the administration to provide new authorities or resources to implement even the most sophisticated PMA.
Too often, the PMA managerial phalanx — OMB and GSA — use two core tenets of each management agenda to further justify their existence and enact their priorities. First are a set of cross-agency priority goals that are wrapped up in the kind of management jargon one might hear at a mid-level consulting firm, with language and objectives that mean far more to OMB and GSA than to agencies and Congress.
Second, each PMA has an implementation plan that siphons money away from agency needs to fund dozens of OMB and GSA staff that mostly churn out power points, spend millions of dollars — at the discretion of OMB’s deputy director for management — on random ideas of bureaucratic waste (remember the Gears of Government Awards?), and convene multitudes of executive meetings to extol the virtues of PMA to often silent audiences.
Stated simply, this kind of superstructure exists for navel-gazing, not driving vital and necessary improvements to the core functions of government. It is time for Congress to take a serious look at the foundations of the GPRA Modernization Act and ensure taxpayers are actually benefiting from the President’s Management Agenda.
Recently, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) has advanced multiple bills to increase transparency of PMA operations and drive stronger performance outcomes across the government. The Federal Agency Performance Act of 2023 would codify recommendations from the Government Accountability Office that address key deficiencies in the current PMA process, such as the lack of timely, useful performance information posted on Performance.gov. Other bills, such as the Clear and Concise Content Act of 2023, would ensure that all government information (specifically information related to the PMA and agency-specific performance plans) is drafted in plain writing — so actual citizens can understand what the federal government is doing with their tax dollars.
Last Congress, HSGAC advanced the Governmentwide Executive Councils Administration and Performance Improvement Act, which would codify and overhaul the GSA office that supports the PMA and make them more accountable to the governmentwide councils authorized in law (such as the Chief Information Officers Council and the Chief Acquisition Officers Council) — not OMB. The bill would give more authority and autonomy to those councils, who are led by C-suite executives actually responsible for management performance and effectiveness in their agencies, and ensure any PMA reflects their collective input. Chairman Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., should reintroduce this important legislation soon.
While those bills are yet to pass, at the end of the 117th Congress, legislators took the most decisive steps to bring real transparency and accountability to the PMA in over a decade. Buried in last year’s appropriations bill were new restrictions on PMA finances to ensure that OMB and GSA were actually consulting agencies before developing any management agenda and that any funds provided for the PMA actually benefited the agencies themselves. And, smartly, Congress enacted strenuous new oversight provisions to ensure that OMB and GSA were actually showing value in their coordination and implementation of the PMA. This was Congress reminding OMB and GSA that receiving these tax dollars is a privilege, not an entitlement.
Federal management and performance improvement may seem arcane, but it is vital to building trust between citizens and the government and delivering high-quality benefits and services to states, localities, and individuals. Congress, as the branch most accountable to voters, must ensure that any management agenda is designed, developed, and delivered in a way to actually benefit the American people, not the OMB and GSA managerial industrial complex. With greater transparency and more accountability, the PMA can become a truly valuable initiative that has buy-in from all stakeholders and deliver actual good government reforms that Americans deserve.
Matthew T. Cornelius is a former senior professional staff member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He also served in several senior executive branch policy roles, including at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Administration, and the U.S. Department of the Treasury.