Managing for Results

Measuring Program Results That Are Under Limited Federal Control Gao ID: GGD-99-16 December 11, 1998

In the spring of 1998, federal agencies submitted their first annual performance plans under the Government Performance and Results Act. GAO found that many of these initial performance plans faltered at their central task: developing measurable goals for the results or outcomes that their programs are intended to achieve. A common challenge for many federal agencies is to develop goals for outcomes that are the results of phenomena outside of the government's control. Indeed, many, if not most, federal programs seek to improve complex systems, such as the economy or the environment, or share responsibilities with other agencies for achieving their objectives. As a result, they confront the challenge of setting goals that are both far-reaching and can be realistically affected by the programs. To help agencies identify methods for developing such goals, GAO examined six programs--the Job Training Partnership Act, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Safe Drinking Water Program, and Title I: Education Assistance--as case studies of how agencies were able to develop performance measures for outcome goals that are affected by external factors. GAO discusses the strategies that these six programs used to set outcome goals.

GAO noted that: (1) the six case studies GAO studied shared the challenge of having limited control over the achievement of their intended objectives; (2) five of the six agencies proposed a mix of outcome goals in their annual performance plans to include far-reaching or end outcomes as well as intermediate outcomes within their more direct control; (3) some of these agencies: (a) employed a variety of analytic strategies--such as breaking out data on subgroups of clients or making statistical adjustments--to attempt to reduce the influence of external factors on their measures; or (b) narrowed the scope of their measures to reflect more closely the populations served--such as employees in targeted industries; (4) the six agencies also employed a range of strategies to address additional challenges that arose from the particular circumstances of their programs; (5) three other agencies with great variability in their activities from site to site that made it difficult to set common intermediate outcomes instead relied on end outcomes as a common measure across sites; (6) agencies also varied in their strategies for obtaining common data to portray their programs at the national level; (7) two agencies extracted common data from existing state records, while three others developed their own data collection and reporting systems; (8) two agencies drew on the results of independent data sources, and one of these agencies also proposed to use national program evaluations to assess states' progress on varied intermediate outcomes; (9) all of the agencies appeared to have benefited from considerable and perhaps unusual access to analytical resources and from previous experience in measuring their results; (10) three programs had legislatively mandated reporting requirements; (11) three agencies had begun strategic planning to identify their mission and long-term goals before the Results Act was enacted; (12) in each case, officials had access to research on the relationship between their programs' activities and intended results or had experience using research and evaluation in program planning; (13) several agency officials mentioned the importance of stakeholder involvement in the development of practical and broadly accepted performance measures; and (14) three programs used performance information to hold local service providers accountable for results.

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