What’s old is new again as groups try to influence new president’s agenda

NAPA and Heritage release papers promoting evidence-based policymaking while the Reason Foundation highlights the lack of public-private competition under Circu...

The line to influence the next president’s administration is getting longer by the day. The traditional good government groups, such as the Partnership for Public Service, have been working the campaigns for a year or more.

But recently, the traditional Washington think tanks also are lending their voice, and opinions, to the ever-expanding community of commentators.

Both the Heritage Foundation and the Reason Foundation released white papers/blog posts trying to drum up support for President George W. Bush-era initiatives.

Reason released its 2016 Privatization Report by John Palatiello, who also is president of the Business Coalition for Fair Competition. BCFC is an organization that advocates against unfair government competition with the private sector.

Palatiello highlights six examples of agencies or Congress moving forward with initiatives to get out of work that is commercially available. For example, Palatiello wrote about the Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration (ITA) trying to get out of the commodity IT business. He also uses the Defense Department’s increased use of energy saving performance contracts to help get military bases and commands efficiencies without upfront costs.

Congress has prohibited any use of funds to run public-private competitions under OMB Circular A-76 since 2008. The Obama administration also tightened the definition of what duties are inherently governmental in 2011. So the examples of privatization are few and far between and there is no application of A-76.

Heritage’s David Muhlhausen asked whether it was time to bring back an updated version of the Bush administration’s Performance Assessment Ratings Tool (PART).

Muhlhausen connected the need to try a PART 2.0 with the ongoing financial and debt challenges the nation faces. He wrote the best idea to deal with the budget woes is to cut spending.

“The effectiveness of federal programs is often unknown. Many programs operate for decades without undergoing thorough scientific evaluations. The federal government needs to prioritize government functions by intelligently targeting resources,” Muhlhausen wrote. “Federal bureaucrats should be expected to make a credible case that the programs they manage deliver evidence-based results. Objective, reliable evidence of program effectiveness or ineffectiveness should encourage Congress to be a wiser steward of the federal purse.”

One of the ways to influence spending is through evidence-based policymaking.

The Bush and Obama administrations have supported this effort in different ways.

Robert Shea, who ran the PART program for the Bush administration within the Office of Management and Budget, said Heritage is proposing a more streamlined approach to the program evaluation effort.

“The central theme is in order to make evidence-based policymaking real, you need to tie it to the budget,” he said. “The PART assessments happen at the program level where budgets decisions are made. That’s what made it so promising.”

Shea said he was surprised and pleased Heritage is calling for the next president to revisit the PART concept. He said he had a chance to stop doing PART during the Bush administration, but continued it because he thought it had more promise as agencies got more experience in using the evaluation tools.

Widespread acceptance exists that agencies need to focus on programmatic outcomes and not outputs, and using data to make decisions has been a hallmark of the Obama administration.

In fact, in September, President Barack Obama’s Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking issued a request for information asking for input on what topics the commission should consider, how best to use data and analysis to determine programmatic success and existing barriers to using this information. Responses are due Nov. 14.

The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) took the idea of evidence-based policymaking one step further by releasing a set of recommendations for the next administration. The bipartisan group of experts, which includes Shea, former Obama administration official Shelley Metzenbaum and a host of other experts detailed five areas where the next administration should focus and continue the momentum.

Shea said the continued need to focus on outcomes and increase the capability of the workforce are among the two recommendations that need more attention.

“It’s easier to measure activities than outcomes so that really needs to be reinforced in order to institutionalize this concept,” he said. “The area most in need of improvement is better integration of performance improvement teams and evaluation team. The performance improvement team is led by the Performance Improvement Officer and in many agencies they’ve got a leader of evaluation programs, who assess the impact of their program. Those two need to work in tandem. At OMB and at some agencies, they are separate, but they need better integration because the evidence the evaluators need to know can be used to ask and answer the right questions about program success. Without that integration, agencies run the risk of missing the point in the process where the results of evaluations are major inputs for decision makers.”

NAPA also recommended Congress do a better job holding agencies accountable for using the performance data without it being a compliance exercise.

Finally, NAPA offered one of the most straightforward ideas — keep it simple and don’t over-engineer the performance management system.

Shea, who now is a principal at Grant Thornton, said both Reason and Heritage are taking advantage of the election year to jumpstart discussions on these topics.

“We know there is a presidential transition coming up so there will be a new management agenda and they are trying to give that input,” he said. “I’m confident there will be sustained focus on performance improvement no matter who wins the election. But I’m at a loss to say what form it will take. It has not central to either campaign, and transition teams aren’t probably spending lots of time on these things.”

Both evidence-based policymaking and public-private competitions could be in play no matter who wins the election.

As for public-private competitions, we know Republicans, traditionally, have supported the notion of competing commercial work done by the public sector with industry. But what’s interesting is under the administration of President Bill Clinton, the use of Circular A-76 competitions wasn’t a third-rail issue like it has been over the last eight years. Shea said he wouldn’t be surprised if Democratic Party nominee Hilary Clinton would have a more open mind about A-76 competitions.

“We have been in the desert as far as looking at the extent to which we can privatize or compete functions with the government,” Shea said. “It may not be a broad initiative to leverage public-private competitions, but making it available to agencies to save money and improve the performance of their money wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

Shea also pointed out that the 2017 Defense Authorization Bill includes language to direct DoD to review and update its views and recommendations concerning the department’s ability to implement public-private competitions under Circular A–76.

Lawmakers want a briefing by March 2017 that “shall include what actions the department has taken to correct the problems identified with Circular A–76” the DoD inspector general and the Government Accountability Office in separate reports.

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