The Obama administration’s effort to benchmark costs and best practices of agency back-office functions is overcoming its initial skeptics.
The Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration say this is the first step toward long-term and meaningful efficiency and effectiveness improvements.
There are three parts to the benchmarking initiative. One is establishing cost and quality benchmarks for administrative operations, such as human resources, finance, acquisition, and IT. The goal is to develop common standards across the government measuring utilization, performance and cost, and then use those baselines to improve service performance and cut costs.
“Dan and I have been the tag team for a year now on an effort around benchmarking. How do we think about giving everyone in this room and your peers around the government the data they need so they can look at their operations and see what’s working from a cost perspective? And as we evolve over time from a quality perspective, we are empowering agencies with that data themselves to make decisions,” Beth Cobert, OMB’s deputy director for management, said Thursday during a panel discussion with GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini at the National Academy of Public Administration’s fall conference in Arlington, Virginia. “We can’t sit at OMB and do all the work. It got to actually has to happen in the agencies. It’s our belief, and when we did all the sessions across the government this summer, when did our PortoflioStat and benchmarking sessions, when you give people inside agencies better information about what’s happening in their agencies, how it compares to other, relevant, comparable parts of government, they will make good decisions about how to use those results to drive better results.”
There are two other areas under the benchmarking initiative which OMB and GSA are leading as well, didn’t come up during the panel.
One is building on the work already underway to reduce improper payments by adding advanced analytics to the do-not-pay portal. The goal is to reduce improper payments across government to 3 percent or less by the end of 2016, currently it’s around 3.5 percent.
The third area is expanding the freeze the footprint policy from 2012 to improve how agencies manage office space by developing metrics.
A one-government point of view
Tangherlini said part of the goal of the benchmarking initiative is to give agencies the data and tools to act more like one government instead of a bunch of disparate organizations.
“I think what you are seeing now is the ability to tap into all that information that we have been amassing through the major investments we’ve been making in IT for the last 20 or 30 years, and actually turn the camera toward the administrative services functions and ask ourselves how can we make the boiler room of government, if you will, more efficient and more effective in support of mission delivery,” he said.
Tangherlini said the benchmarking effort is part of a long-term evolution where agencies rely on each other to get things done based on their skills and capabilities, and almost get rid of the “every organization for itself” mentality.
Getting agencies on board with the benchmarking initiative took almost a year of work. OMB and GSA focused on the CXO Councils to lead this initiative and create support.
“We started with the councils, and asked the councils — the CFO Council, the Real Property Officer’s Council, the CAO Council,
the CHCO Council and the CIO Council — what data would be useful to you? We’re not going to tell you which data will go into the benchmarks. You tell us what would be most useful to you in your leadership roles,” Cobert said.
She said relying on the councils is one of several ways OMB wants to institutionalize the benchmarking approach.
“One is making sure the changes actually work and add value. Two is thinking about what are the things you want to embed
in policy and practice. Whether it’s PortfolioStat and the data we are collecting about IT effectiveness and cybersecurity. How do we do those things,”
Cobert said. “And the third part is genuinely, as Dan said, a bottom-up and top- down thing. How do we pull out those ideas that exist already inside of agencies that people have found a way to create and spread those around. Honestly, if we can just
take some of the great stuff that is already happening every day and make it happen at five more agencies, that would have a phenomenal impact.”
Tangherlini said the bottom-up approach is one of the ways OMB and GSA changed the outlook on this initiative. But getting the councils and mission areas involved changed the mind of agencies who initially thought it was just another OMB data call.
“The fact that there was a real commitment and this was Beth’s first direction to us as we took off on this journey was work with those councils,” he said. “The councils are compromised primarily civil servants, Senior Executive Service, senior leaders of agencies who have been committed and working on the administrative functions for years, in some cases decades. By activating their experience, their knowledge, by tapping into their frustrations and then saying we will base this on the issues you raise and create a system and structure that you can use and manipulate.”
Tangherlini said the biggest changes came from people who said this was a bad idea at first and then came around because they can see the bureau-by-bureau data, and the agency-by-agency data.
“The fact that we made it clear this wasn’t going to be a budget driven process, but this is really about an outcome driven process,” he said. “It’s really about giving people information that they need to perform better and in some cases information that they need to make a case for investment. That actually has really won people over.”
Tangherlini said each of the administrative functions start with 5-to-10 metrics. He said these metrics are leading to several outcomes already, including agencies beginning to do business process reengineering. He said GSA also has seen an increase in the use of vendor past performance reporting in the Past Performance Information Retrieval System (PPIRS). By giving information to the agencies, Tangherlini said, they now have the power to challenge their organization and push harder toward success.
Cobert added OMB also is creating communities of practices through the Performance Improvement Council as another way to promote the use of the data and the benefits of benchmarks.
Customer service metrics coming
The benchmarking initiative is 1 of 15 cross agency priority goals. Another that Cobert highlighted was around customer service.
Cobert said OMB is just beginning to lead an effort about how best to create metrics to measure customer service.
“I also think we have to do this in a careful and measured way. Transparency around something can be great, but when you are getting started and don’t quite know what’s happening yet, you can also over read data,” she said. “So there is this balance, not because you are trying to keep data hidden, but you’re trying to work your way through so you have something that is reliable and sensible and really fact based. That’s the balance we are trying to strike.”
Cobert said agencies already have customer service metrics, but they aren’t reliable and not easily compared to private sector benchmarks.
OMB has been working on this customer service metrics challenge with the President’s Management Advisory Board, which is made up of private sector executives who help the government tackle these issues.
One of the challenges the agencies have when it comes to customer service is so much of the money they hand out goes through second and third parties. The agencies have less direct contact and impact with customers because of these intermediaries.
Cobert said the topic of using data for how best to allocate funding has been at the center of many recent OMB director reviews for the 2016 budget request that the administration is preparing.
She said getting answers to a few straightforward questions — How can we know in world of scarce federal dollars we are delivering impact? And when we have important policy goals, how do we know we get most for scarce dollars? — helps OMB and agencies decide on how best to invest funds.
Cobert said helping to get to those answers is where this benchmarking, customer service and other data come in to help drive mission decisions.