Do Performance Reforms Change How Federal Managers Manage?

Policymakers on both sides of the aisle say they want government programs to perform better. A central strategy to achieve that goal at the federal level has been the creation of a performance management system, the latest iteration of which was shaped by the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010. This system promotes the collection of information on the performance of federal programs. The expectation is that agency personnel will use this information when managing federal programs, but do such reforms actually make a difference? To address this question, we look at the impact of past reforms: the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) of 1993 and the Bush administration’s Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART). Both reforms established new routines intended to encourage federal agency personnel to take a performance-oriented approach in managing their programs. 

Using data from two surveys, we found that the involvement of federal managers with GPRA processes and PART reviews generally had little direct effect on purposeful performance information use, i.e., using data to improve management and allocation decisions. These reforms were more strongly associated with passive use, i.e. using measures to further modify goals and measures in accordance with the procedural requirements of the law.

The findings reflect the limits of government-wide reform efforts that depend upon bureaucratic behavior that is difficult for reformers to control and observe. But the findings also offer some insight for the implementation of the Modernization Act. 

The Act has sought to institutionalize leadership commitment to performance by requiring leaders to publicly commit to a handful of high-priority goals. Our findings support this approach, as we find that perceived leadership commitment is associated with higher performance information use. 

We found that the existence of a dialogue between employees about performance was associated with performance information use. If such dialogues can be institutionalized through the quarterly reviews of performance goals required by the Modernization Act, this will facilitate greater use. 

Our results suggest that quarterly reviews can also play an instrumental role in fostering performance information use if such reviews focus on the motivational nature of the task (“why are these goals important?”) and developing actionable knowledge (“what do the measures tell us about how to manage?”).

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