Creating value in the public sector: Intelligent project selection in the US federal government


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Creating value in the public sector: Intelligent project selection in the US federal government is an Economist Intelligence Unit research report, sponsored by Oracle. The findings and views expressed in the report do not necessarily reflect the views of the sponsor. The author was Brian Robinson. Mike Kenny was responsible for the design.

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Creating value in the public sector: Intelligent project selection in the US federal government

  1. 1. Creating value in thepublic sectorIntelligent project selectionin the US federal governmentA report from the Economist Intelligence UnitSponsored by Oracle
  2. 2. Creating value in the public sector Intelligent project selection in the US federal government Contents Preface 3 Executive summary 4 Introduction 5 Identifying the right projects 6 Balancing project portfolios 7 Selecting and managing resources 9 The impact of laws and regulations 10 Improving decision-making 12 Conclusion 131 © Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2011
  3. 3. Creating value in the public sector Intelligent project selection in the US federal government Preface Creating value in the public sector: Intelligent project selection in the US federal government is an Economist Intelligence Unit research report, sponsored by Oracle. The findings and views expressed in the report do not necessarily reflect the views of the sponsor. The author was Brian Robinson. Mike Kenny was responsible for the design. April 20112 © Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2011
  4. 4. Creating value in the public sector Intelligent project selection in the US federal government Executive summary U S federal agencies have been under pressure for years to improve the way they select and prioritise the programmes they manage, with successive administrations and Congress beating the efficiency drum. Government budgets threaten deep cuts, and that pressure will increase. Most agencies are not where they need to be to meet these demands. Individual programme management has improved, but there has been no progress on techniques for assessing the impact of a portfolio of programmes and their alignment with agency strategies and goals. Evaluation practices have not kept pace, and programmes have fallen through the cracks. Ineffective programmes continue to run seemingly under their own momentum, with scant justification of their efficacy. New requirements will ratchet the pressure even higher. The Obama administration’s Accountable Government Initiative will require agencies to identify their worst-performing projects, and weed out the least critical. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in March detailed overlaps and duplications in hundreds of government programmes. Congress will undoubtedly use these findings to cut billions of dollars from agency spending. Meanwhile, in line with the enactment of the revamped Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) in 2010, agencies now have to link their programme evaluation and selection more closely to annual performance plans and strategy goals. The government is not a monolith, and each agency has its own culture and unique set of stakeholders. No one template can provide an answer for all government agencies, but there are common approaches that can improve the performance of most programmes: l Take a holistic approach to programme evaluation. New programmes cannot be considered without knowing how they fit with existing ones, how they will operate and what they will cost. This portfolio- based approach provides the best way to gain a holistic view of agency needs. l Build a feedback loop into the evaluation process. Agencies will need the ability to redefine their planning continually, instead of only at the beginning of each budget cycle, in order to adjust the mix of programmes in their portfolio more quickly to changes imposed by overall demands on agencies and subsequent changes in strategies. l Make sure there is a clear prioritisation of programmes. Know which programmes are vital to maintain the agency’s mission and which are less so. Build this into the agency’s operating plan so that budgets can be reallocated across the portfolio of programmes as needed to make sure the needs of those with the highest priorities are met. l Assume the worst, and plan accordingly. While the budgets for certain individual programmes may rise, most agency budgets overall will drop substantially over the next few years. Planning for that eventuality will require a robust process for evaluating programmes across the enterprise, and how they link with agency strategies and goals.3 © Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2011
  5. 5. Creating value in the public sector Intelligent project selection in the US federal government Introduction T hese are not the best of times for government. With a federal budget deficit projected to be US$1.6trn by the end of fiscal year 2011 (the federal government fiscal year runs from October 1st to September 30th), the administration of Barack Obama has called for a five-year freeze on government spending, while Republicans in Congress have pushed for deep cuts. What is certain is that most agencies will have to do their work with fewer resources. In addition to these cuts, there will be an even sharper focus on how agencies select and implement programmes. At the beginning of March the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, released the first of a series of congressionally mandated annual reports identifying which federal programmes, agency offices and initiatives have duplicative goals or activities.1 If Congress acts on these findings, it could cut billions of dollars from agency budgets. The report found 34 areas of government where the objectives overlapped, provided similar services to the same sectors of the population, or where missions were fragmented across multiple agencies or programmes. It also identified 47 areas where costs could be reduced, or extra revenue could be obtained (see box Improving the US food safety system). Overall, the GAO’s findings spanned hundreds of programmes, and touched nearly all the major federal departments and agencies. At the same time, agencies are also under pressure from the Obama administration “to make government work better, faster and more efficiently”, by scrutinising more carefully which programmes to implement, and then providing a better evaluation of the effectiveness of these programmes. One goal of the president’s Accountable Government Initiative, clearly, is to identify the lowest-priority and worst-performing government programmes. All agencies have to take a hard look at their spending in order to weed out the initiatives that are the least critical to their missions—in turn shifting the focus to how they evaluate programmes. Just before he left his post as director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the end of July 2010, Peter Orszag sent a memo to federal agency heads pointing out that rigorous programme evaluations can be key to determining whether they are achieving their purpose at the lowest cost.1. Government “Some programmes have persisted year after year without adequate evidence that they work,” he wrote.Accountability Office,Opportunities to Reduce (The OMB is part of the Executive Office of the President, and its core mission is to help a wide range ofPotential Duplication in executive departments and agencies across the federal government to implement the commitments andGovernment Programs, SaveTax Dollars, and Enhance priorities of the president.)Revenue, March 1st 2011. Government has done a good job in recent years with such things as performance measurement and4 © Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2011
  6. 6. Creating value in the public sector Intelligent project selection in the US federal government Improving the US food safety system two agencies operate a US$2.5bn food safety budget, but a total of 15 federal agencies together administer at least 30 food-related laws. This can lead to some bizarre situations. For example, the FDA is One of the most important areas where the federal government adds responsible for the safety and proper labelling of eggshells at the value for American citizens is in overseeing the safety of the nation’s farms where the eggs are produced, whereas the FSIS is responsible food system. It is even more important now given that a much greater for the safety of eggs processed into egg products. Meanwhile, portion of the US food supply is imported, as raw and unprocessed other USDA agencies are responsible for setting quality and grade foods become more popular, and with the growth of sections of the standards for eggs, and for ensuring the health of young chicks population that are susceptible to food-borne illnesses. supplied to egg farms. This is the reason that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) Meanwhile, it is unclear who is responsible for actually testing chose the issue as an example of wayward government efforts in its eggs for such things as salmonella. In 2010 there was nationwide March 2011 report on Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication recall of 500 million eggs because of salmonella contamination. in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue. The As early as 2004, the GAO reported that integrating food safety fragmented nature of federal food oversight programmes has caused oversight could create economies of scale, and made a more inconsistent oversight, ineffective co-ordination and inefficient use concentrated effort to protect the food supply. In 2007 it made its of resources, according to the GAO. first call for a mission-based, government-wide performance plan “Without a government-wide performance plan for food safety, focused on results. decision-makers do not have a comprehensive picture of the federal Although the GAO does not expect reducing fragmentation in government’s performance on this cross-cutting issue,” it noted. food safety oversight to result in significant cost savings, new costs Responsibility for food safety lies primarily with the Food and Drug could be avoided. This might be an important point going forward, Administration (FDA) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service however, since both the FDA and USDA budgets are under pressure in (FSIS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Together, these Congress because of the ongoing fiscal crisis. individual programme management, according to Jon Desenberg, policy director for The Performance Institute, a think tank based in Washington, DC. Nevertheless, officials “haven’t taken that to the next level, especially with things such as portfolio management”, he says. Although government is doing a much more effective job on managing individual programmes, what is missing in many agencies is the link to a broader strategic outlook, and a better way to prioritise programmes to fit with that outlook.5 © Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2011
  7. 7. Creating value in the public sector Intelligent project selection in the US federal government Identifying the right projects S ome agencies have become practiced at evaluating proposals for the programmes they want to implement. A January 2011 report by the GAO2 found that agencies with the most mature evaluation processes have a consistent approach, from initial consultation with a variety of stakeholders and feedback from senior officials to a formal review and approval process. This approach also fits well with the ability to take an enterprise-wide look at agency programmes, to see how that portfolio matches up with the longer-term strategic goals. By identifying how programmes relate to each other and to those goals, agencies can decide on the optimal mix of programmes needed to meet those strategic targets, and what resources need to be shifted among them to make sure the entire portfolio of programmes is appropriately balanced. The problem with all but the smallest agencies is the diversity of stakeholders whose input has to be considered in any programme discussions. At the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for example, there are five major lines of business, each of which has several themes that may need their own programmes. The senior leadership at the agency keeps on top of things with reviews of the programme portfolios of each business line “roughly quarterly,” says Dr Michael Hawes, associate administrator in NASA’s Office of Independent Program & Cost Evaluation. Then, at the beginning of each year’s budget cycle, a broader portfolio review is done for the entire agency to see how programmes are developing and which might need adjustment. The National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also provides programmes for several lines of business. It uses two key documents – a strategic plan and a business unit implementation plan – to guide its programme evaluation and selection. Previously, it used a two-step planning process: the first step was based on the perfect scenario in which all the requirements could be met with no constraints assumed, while the second step added the constraints. Now it follows a planning process that includes fiscal constraints from the beginning. Based on the budgets enacted by Congress, the executive team now has a much clearer idea of what2. Government is possible in terms of its overall portfolio of programmes. “Before, it was very difficult to track decisionsAccountability Office,Program Evaluation: over time in terms of the implementation of strategies,” says Paul Doremus, director of strategic planningExperienced Agencies in NOAA’s Office of Program Planning and Integration. “Now we have a much tighter linkage betweenFollow a Similar Modelfor Prioritizing Research, strategic intent and what we can actually resource.”January 2011.6 © Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2011
  8. 8. Creating value in the public sector Intelligent project selection in the US federal government Balancing project portfolios N o decision to begin a new programme is taken in isolation by any government agency. Most of them have legacy programmes that need to be funded and resourced, so knowing the matrix of programmes in an agency is key to the decision-making process. Good portfolio management is an essential step to better programme selection and prioritisation. Without it, agencies have no holistic view of their strategy and mission, and how each programme (existing or proposed) fits into “the big picture”. The Office of Environmental Management in the Department of Energy (DOE), for example, is responsible for cleaning up the radioactive sites in the United States and around the world that are a legacy of the cold war arms race. Programmatically, it is one of the most complex endeavours in government. The clean-up is already 20 years old and has many years still to go. Each of the clean-up sites sets up its own baseline needs, but because of the schedules for clean-up and movement of nuclear waste around the country, there is a certain interdependency of needs. All of that information feeds into a database that is used by executives at the Office of Environmental Management headquarters to prioritise which programmes to fund based on maximising compliance and clean-up. “We think we have a good planning basis,” says Merle Sykes, the Office of Environmental Management’s chief business officer (see case study Nuclear clean-up—planning for the long term). “We know what our costs are on a continuing basis, so we feel pretty confident in that.” NASA has a similar long-term outlook, if not the same kind of interdependency. The Science Mission Directorate alone has around 50 satellites operating in space, many of them with multi-decade lifetimes. Each of them has a cost that has to be factored into deliberations about which programmes to continue funding, and which programmes to begin funding. The portfolio reviews undertaken by the agency’s senior leadership give them a good understanding of how each programme is performing, and the level of its operational constraints. “We need that to assess the kind of fixed operating space we have, and what the challenges are in the development of ongoing projects,” says Dr Hawes. “Then we can consider what room we have for new missions.” He believes that strengthening this kind of portfolio approach to gain the most holistic view is important. Frequently, attention is driven towards the more unusual and visible projects. However, considering the portfolio as a whole allows the agency to factor the broader risks into the budget, to understand the common drivers of cost and to plan for growth. That holistic view is also critical to the way NOAA operates. It has “major mission goals” in the7 © Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2011
  9. 9. Creating value in the public sector Intelligent project selection in the US federal government CASE STUDY: waste. “Obviously, everyone can’t ship on the same day, so we have Nuclear clean-up—planning for the long term to make sure that sequencing makes sense,” says Merle Sykes, chief business officer at the Office of Environmental Management. “Also, there’s an optimum way to fill up [the waste depository], so there’s a certain sequencing there you have to accomplish.” The Office of Environmental Management at the Department of Energy The focus of the Office of Environmental Management’s planning (DOE) is charged with cleaning up the environmental waste produced activities is what Ms Sykes calls an integrated priority list. Each site by 50 years of nuclear weapons development and energy research. It uploads its planned activities into a central database, and that list runs dozens of construction and clean-up projects in multiple states is used at headquarters to decide which particular projects might valued at a total lifecycle cost of over US$200bn. Scrutiny on its work require more money. will no doubt intensify in the wake of the Japanese nuclear crisis as Factors that affect prioritisation include such things as how to public concern over nuclear projects reawakens. maximise regulatory compliance, how to get the most clean-up The Department is currently operating under a five-year plan that done for the money and how to manage resources for disposal. It runs until fiscal year 2012 (October 2011 to September 2012). A is a mature process, since the agency has been at this for 20 years major strategic goal under the plan is to complete the clean-up of 95 already. But surprises are still possible. For example, the agency had contaminated geographical sites by the end of 2012. There is some been working on the assumption that it would be funded at the same flexibility for changes to the clean-up schedule, but the DOE is liable level as fiscal 2010, but there has been talk of cutting it back to 2008 for fines, penalties and other regulatory action if it strays too far. levels. “That would have a substantial impact for us,” Ms Sykes says. Accordingly, precise programme evaluation and planning is vital, “We try to hold back, but as the continuing resolution debate drags and in fact an increased attention to programme management was on, that’s sometimes not possible. We can talk about lay-offs if we get a specific feature of the five-year plan. Each site operates under its cut, or about curtailing activities, but it’s not precise.” own funding profile and determines what it needs for clean-up. Such The saving grace is the planning and evaluation process that the calculations include assumptions relating to funding that are then Office of Environmental Management has put in place, and its years included in the agency’s overall financial statement. At the same of experience, particularly with regard to costs. Even though this is a time, there is a certain amount of interdependency between sites that “very, very difficult year”, Ms Sykes believes that her organisation is must be taken into account, particularly when it comes to shipping in a good position to weather it. areas of weather, climate, oceans and coasts, says Mr Doremus, with line offices responsible for the implementation of those goals, “while acknowledging that the implementation requires capabilities from across the organisation.” So, when it comes to planning at NOAA and ensuring that this portfolio view is available, each of those lines of business also has to be able to show what the interdependencies are across the organisation, and with external partners. “Each of the objectives in the strategic plan identify the capabilities that are required across the organization as well as, sometimes, what’s needed from the outside,” says Mr. Doremus. “Those are built into a logic model that shows us how the components work together over time, so we can integrate complementary programmes and avoid redundancies.”8 © Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2011
  10. 10. Creating value in the public sector Intelligent project selection in the US federal government Selecting and managing resources A ll decisions about government programmes are resource-dependent, so what guidance agencies and programme planners can provide about available resources will ultimately drive the final decision on what programmes to develop and what to do without. Sometimes that has to do with people, sometimes it is the time available in which to implement the programmes. Currently, funding is by far the biggest driver. The question is how to factor resource constraints into the decision-making process. For the current fiscal year planning, well before the current budget debates began, NOAA told its business units to plan as though resources would not increase at all, based on the fiscal trends that seemed to be developing. That turned out to have been good guidance, Mr Doremus says, “if not optimistic”. Other organisations try to get ahead by incorporating flexibility into their upfront planning. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), for example, is neck deep in new and ongoing information technology (IT) programmes that are needed to upgrade the services it provides to military veterans. To make sure that the overall intent of those programmes is not compromised, IT operations at the VA work according to a prioritised operating plan. Each of the 1,100 programmes in the plan has a certain dollar amount attached to it that is considered the minimum needed to move that programme forward. If the VA is faced with a reduced budget, it knows how to reallocate funding in such a way as to keep the maximum number of programmes going while factoring in the relative priorities of each project. “Any good, well-disciplined organisation knows what it needs in the way of prioritisation,” says Roger Baker, the VA’s chief information officer. “In the VA, it’s the operations of its hospitals and clinics, and what goes through the benefits office.” The potential funding gap raises a question mark over everything to do with federal programme evaluations, notes George Grob, a former director of planning and policy at the Department of Health and Human Services, and now president of the Virginia-based Center for Public Program Evaluation. “The political process says evaluation has to be a part of the DNA of programmes, but for that you need resources,” he says. “The mindset of Congress now is to cut the budget, so where will the funding come from?” It is a difficult process, acknowledges Mr Hawes of NASA. NASA usually has very bipartisan support in Congress, which is a huge advantage when it comes to programme planning “because we don’t swing as widely as some do with the change in political parties and changes in Congress”. But both parties are focused on the financial environment now “and we will not be immune to that in any way”, he says. “So we need to look ahead and at those issues, which will be reflected in whether or not we can inject new programmes into the portfolio.”9 © Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2011
  11. 11. Creating value in the public sector Intelligent project selection in the US federal government The impact of laws and regulations I n order to comply with laws and regulations, agencies have to factor a complex range of considerations into their programme plans. At present, however, the impact of laws and regulations on budgets is driving everything. This focus on monetary issues is driven by the fact that the federal budget deficit is projected to reach US$1.6trn by the end of fiscal year 2011. In response, the Obama administration has called for a five-year freeze in government spending and has proposed a target of reducing the deficit by US$4trn over the next decade—with consequent deep cuts in many agency budgets. Republicans in both the House of Representatives and the Senate have said that the proposal will not be sufficient, and House Republicans have proposed more than US$60bn in cuts just for the remainder of fiscal 2011. The end result? The budgeting process for agencies is unclear for the foreseeable future, making planning very difficult indeed. The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) Modernization Act, in turn, will also have a major and long-lasting impact. Passed by the last Congress at the end of 2010 and signed into law by the president, Mr Obama, on January 4th 2011, it ushers in a new era of programme evaluation requirements that will resonate across government. The previous 18-year-old GPRA also pushed agencies to evaluate programmes better, requiring them to create multi-year strategic plans, produce annual performance reports, and determine whether programmes really achieve their objectives. However, critics say it produced little information to guide programmes or policy action. In contrast, the new GPRA will create more specific fact-based decision-making for programme implementation, and more frequent, quarterly reporting and reviews of programmes. Agencies will have to link performance goals in their annual plans with the goals in their strategic plans, and will also need to describe their strategy and resource proposals. The new GPRA promotes closer relations between Congress and agencies, notes Mr Desenberg of The Performance Institute. And it suggests that Congress will be making a better effort to look at performance goals and evaluate whether they have been attained. The GAO’s March report adds a huge amount of fuel to the programme-cutting fire. A year in the making, it looked at hundreds of federal programmes that affect virtually all of the major federal departments and agencies, with the goal of giving Congress a view into the “duplication, overlap or fragmentation” of programmes that could then be reduced or eliminated. In just one programme alone, the Department of Defense (DOD) military healthcare system, the GAO found that up to US$460m a year in savings could be attained if the DOD committed to a broader10 © Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2011
  12. 12. Creating value in the public sector Intelligent project selection in the US federal government restructuring of the programme, compared to the limited changes it had proposed. In addition, federal revenue losses could be reduced by up US$5.7bn annually by addressing duplicative policies across the government to boost domestic ethanol production. Implementing provisions of the new GPRA, such as its emphasis on establishing outcome-oriented goals covering a limited number of cross-cutting policy areas, could play an important role in clarifying desired outcomes, addressing programme performance spanning multiple organisations, and facilitating future actions to reduce unnecessary duplication, overlap and fragmentation, according to the GAO. Even if they are not driven to do so because of internal demands, these external pressures will push agencies to adopt a more holistic, portfolio-based approach to programme planning and prioritisation.11 © Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2011
  13. 13. Creating value in the public sector Intelligent project selection in the US federal government Improving decision-making B efore the new GPRA and other government requirements kick in, agencies could make several improvements in the way they currently evaluate programmes. “Certainly a continuous evaluation feedback loop, that is definitely missing,” says Mr Grob. “Some places have that tied down pretty well, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and also the people at the some family service programmes. But, once you get beyond those, it tends to disappear very fast.” An evaluation feedback loop is one of the benefits that Mr Doremus expects to extract from NOAA’s new streamlined evaluation process. Such a loop should help maintain the “line of sight” from strategy through to programme selection and on into the budget process and programme execution. This approach should give NOAA the ability to learn continually and adjust as the agency’s pattern of performance changes, and as the planning environment changes around it. Like other agencies, NOAA probably faces a “very different future”, says Mr Doremus. To meet the challenge, it needs greater organisational capacity for strategic flexibility. “It’s difficult to plan under circumstances of great complexity and uncertainty. Scenario planning is a method we could use, and we’ve implemented that to a certain degree, but I think we could certainly get better at it.” For NASA’s Dr Hawes, better portfolio analysis could lead to major improvements. By identifying risks associated with specific activities on each mission, NASA would be better able to factor risk into the way it prioritises programmes, thus making the budgeting process as a whole more sensitive to risk. “Those are the things we’re trying to evaluate all of the time,” he says. “And you really only get those if you have a process that allows you to step back and look at the total portfolio.” Last, but not least, programme evaluation would profit from an influx of trained and dedicated people. Most of the agency planning offices that carry out the project evaluation and analysis now rely on a very small workforce, which will be stretched even further with the demands from the OMB, the new GPRA and Congress. The American Evaluation Association made the same point in its Evaluation Roadmap. The units formed by agencies to conduct evaluations are too often under-resourced. Training and capacity building for evaluation have been inconsistent across agencies “and, in many cases, insufficient to achieve the needed evaluation capacity and to sustain it over time”, the association reports.12 © Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2011
  14. 14. Creating value in the public sector Intelligent project selection in the US federal government Conclusion P rogramme evaluation and selection in the federal government has changed substantially over the past 20 years. The administration of Ronald Reagan (1981-89) shifted the focus away from large- scale programme evaluation and more towards programme management. It was not until Bill Clinton was elected as president (1992-2000) that the focus started to move back to evaluation. The Obama administration, which came into power in 2009 promising more transparency and accountability in government, has taken note of surveys such as one by the Pew Research Center,3 which found that two-thirds of Americans believe that the government cannot run programmes efficiently and without waste. The president’s Accountable Government Initiative is the administration’s attempt to introduce a formal evaluation process for government programmes to help overturn that perception. Its goal is a rigorous, evidence-based approach to programme selection and implementation, in which only those programmes that are worthy will survive. For agencies, the need to commit more resources to improving their evaluation capabilities could not come at a worse time. On the one hand, the fiscal crisis is imposing major constraints on their ability to rise to the challenge to select and evaluate projects better—a situation that is unlikely to change soon. On the other hand, they have little room to manoeuvre. They must improve their programme evaluation and selection processes to meet the growing demands of the Obama administration, the requirements of the new GPRA, the repercussions of the GAO report, and additional legislation and regulation that is aimed at governing agency programme management more tightly. If anything, it will be incumbent on agencies to try to get ahead of the coming tide. Those that can show good knowledge and management of their portfolio of programmes, while also demonstrating the ability to maintain progress on their strategic goals, will be treated far more kindly by Congress and the administration than those that do not, and on these agencies solutions will be imposed.3. The Pew Research Centerfor the People and theP-ress, Trends in PoliticalValues and Core Attitudes:1987-2007, March 2007.13 © Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2011
  15. 15. Whilst every effort has been taken to verify the accuracy Cover image: Shutterstock of this information, neither The Economist Intelligence Unit Ltd. nor the sponsors of this report can accept any responsibility or liability for reliance by any person on this white paper or any of the information, opinions or conclusions set out in the white paper.14
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