Mandated by Congress in late 2010, the U.S. federal government is undertaking a grand, new effort to create and act upon its first set of cross-agency goals.
The approach was inspired by a blend of management innovation pioneered by Prime Minister Tony Blair in the U.K. and another management approach developed by the New York City police department.
As prime minister, Blair identified a handful of domestic policy priorities and targets, such as reduced waiting time for hospital visits and the punctuality of railway trains. He then created a relentless focus on getting them done.
Similarly, in the 1990s New York City’s police department created a regular, rigorously run set of stock-taking meetings which they dubbed “COMPSTAT” meetings. Their award-winning approach has been successfully replicated in many cities around the U.S. and by several states.
Until last year, there was no mechanism to create and pursue cross-agency goals in the U.S. federal government. Cross-agency forums, such as the food safety working group, tended to focus efforts more on coordination of efforts, not collaborating around achieving measurable, concrete results against a common set of metrics.
In late 2010, Congress passed a law requiring for the first time that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) – roughly equivalent to the Canadian Treasury Board – develop a small handful of long-term cross-agency priority goals, in consultation with a dozen different congressional committees, at least every two years. This will require creating new institutional procedures in both OMB and Congress. Agencies are also required to develop a small number of priority goals as well.
In testimony before a congressional taskforce on government performance, after the law was passed, the president of the Center for American Progress, John Podesta, said: “The new law also asks for cross-government goals, which I believe is its most important feature. President Obama should use this opportunity to communicate what his entire administration is trying to accomplish, setting no more than five goals that are presented as a contract between himself and the American people … Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair did something similar to great effect.”
The law directs OMB to designate a senior government official to serve as the lead for each of the goals. It also requires OMB to conduct quarterly reviews of these cross-agency priority goals, much like the New York City COMPSTAT reviews, to assess the progress toward the goals, and redirect strategy and resources if necessary.
In addition, the law created a new central capacity for OMB to better manage government-wide performance. It required each agency to designate a senior level “performance improvement officer” and it created a cross-agency Performance Improvement Council, comprised of the agency performance improvement officers and with cross-agency staff supporting it. The law also required creation of a government-wide website to track progress on all cross-agency and agency-level performance initiatives. That site is now in beta and will be fully operational by the end of the year.
Obama’s budget proposal, which was sent to Congress in February, included the first set of cross-agency priority goals. There are 14 in total. Seven are mission-focused, such as doubling U.S. exports by 2014. Seven center on mission-support functions, such as reducing critical skill gaps in the U.S. federal government’s workforce.
By design, the goals are supposed to span a two- to four-year timeframe and are not supposed to represent new policy initiatives or require new monies. Rather, they focus on implementing existing policies within existing monies. OMB staff say that they chose these 14 based on a combination of existing presidential priorities and a list of high-risk programs identified by Congress’s Governmental Accountability Office.
Mission-focused goal areas include: exports, entrepreneurship, broadband, energy efficiency, job training, veteran employment, and science and technical education.
Mission-support goal areas include: cyber security, environmental sustainability, real property management, improper payments, data center consolidation, skill gaps and strategic sourcing.
The goal statements on the government-wide website are accompanied by a description that provides some context for the goal, the name of the goal leader, a summary of the action plan, and a list of the agencies and programs that will contribute to the action plan.
Each goal has a designated senior government official responsible for coordinating action. For example, Michael Froman, an assistant to the president for international economics, leads the “doubling exports” goal. He will build off an existing presidential directive – the National Export Initiative – with an existing network of agencies via the Trade Promotion Coordinating Council. There are eight agencies and over 40 specific programs in those agencies that will be orchestrated around this goal.
Froman will receive staff support from the Department of Commerce, and President Obama signed a directive giving him greater authority via another coordinating body, the Export Promotion Cabinet, to, for example, “evaluate the allocation of federal government resources” for trade promotion and to recommend reallocations to the director of OMB. It also authorizes co-location of offices, cross-training staff, and the evaluation of employee performance.
In addition, individual agencies’ own priority goals support Froman's cross-agency goal. For example, the State Department has committed to increase its market-oriented export activities by 15 percent, and one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s priority goals is to expand nominal U.S. agricultural exports to $150 billion by fiscal year 2013.
So there appears to be a serious commitment at the top of the U.S. federal government to pursue these cross-agency priority goals by providing the leaders the tools to make them work.
The next big step will be OMB-organized quarterly progress meetings for each of the 14 cross-agency goals. By law, the first meetings need to be completed by June 30. In the meanwhile, the goals leaders are busy developing their action plans, identifying metrics, inventorying contributing programs in the various contributing agencies, developing strategy maps, and where needed, developing governance structures.