Making a Comeback

March 1, 2000

Lost in all the hype about customer satisfaction, plain English awards and reinvention laboratories is the real progress that big agencies make when they focus on the long haul. Reform movements might use big themes like reinventing government as decorative wrapping for what needs to be done, but they also come and go like the tides. Agencies must do whatever it takes under whatever label might be hot to accomplish their goals.

That is why the Transportation Department is well on its way to becoming the comeback agency of the next decade. Beleaguered by ancient systems and continued turbulence in its information systems, DOT is still some distance from becoming a high-performing organization.

The Federal Aviation Administration is a case in point. With a D in financial management and Cs in human resource management, information technology, capital management, the FAA was lucky to get a C overall in last year’s Government Performance Project report card. The agency could have done a whole lot worse. But in 1999, the agency made great strides on modernization, financial management and personnel reform.

Something is happening at FAA that should make the rest of government take a second look. Led by a strong-willed new administrator, Jane Garvey, and staffed by some of the most dedicated public servants in the country, the agency is working hard to get better every day. It came through the Y2K crossover with flying colors, and seems to be holding its own in the growing talent wars for entry-level recruits.

The FAA also has the guts to ask hard questions about itself. When the time came to pick its customers for the Vice President’s customer satisfaction survey last summer, for example, the FAA picked airline pilots, arguably the toughest, most knowledgeable customers around.

The FAA still has plenty of problems. Its financial management system joined the air traffic control modernization program on the General Accounting Office’s “high risk” list last year, and flight delays appear to be increasing. But the agency is clearly focused on the right goals, and has the measurement systems in place to know just how far it has to go.

DOT’s focus on performance starts at the top with Rodney Slater, a no-nonsense Secretary who has refused to build the kind of publicity machine that seems to characterize so many other agencies. It continues with Mort Downey, the best deputy secretary in government; Jack Basso, the head of the budget and financial management office that runs the performance process; and the new inspector general, Ken Mead, who has a brought professionalism to an office used by his predecessor more to terrorize the department than improve it. Performance clearly counts at the top of DOT, and that is half the battle in making it count on the front line.

DOT would get an even higher grade on managing for results if it had measures for approximately a third of its goals and could find a way to tie those measures to a meaningful reward system. It would rise even further if the entire department followed the Coast Guard’s lead in granting more waivers from needless rules.

DOT is not the only department struggling to make performance count, however. Only a few years into implementation, the current performance measurement effort is on the verge of joining its predecessors in oblivion. If the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act ends up on a dusty shelf, it will be for the same reasons that doomed the Program, Planning and Budgeting System in the 1960s and zero-based budgeting in the 1970s.

Congress and the President have yet to figure out how to tie performance measures to budget or head count, the two things that matter most in government. Agencies that perform well have no assurance that their budgets and staffing will grow, just as agencies that fail have no fear that their budgets and staffing will shrink. Members of Congress tout performance until their pet programs fail.

The performance process is becoming a thicket of rules, paperwork and unreadable reports that only an evaluation expert could love. It is little wonder that members of Congress are not paying much attention to the process. The reports are so filled with jargon that they make one long for an inspector general’s report to lighten the reading.

It is up to Congress to make the next move on performance. Performance measurement will never penetrate to the bottom until the congressional budget process puts real money into play. Step one would be to build a penalty into the budget resolution for departments and agencies that fail to get their plans into shape. Step two would be to tie real performance measures into the annual appropriations process. Step three would be to give high-performing agencies higher head counts with employees skimmed from poorly performing agencies or added to the federal payroll.

Luckily, Congress can look to DOT to see how performance measurement can remake government. The department may still have a long way to go, but it is well on its way to becoming a model for other agencies. By centering its keel on performance, it is more likely to improve than agencies that are merely riding the latest wave of reform.