More Federal Agencies Report Using Performance Data for Business Decisions, Survey Shows

Agencies are making progress using data to drive operational business decisions.

Agencies are making progress using data to drive operational business decisions. megaflopp/iStock

A Government Accountability Office survey shows most agencies are improving the use of performance data, with two leading the way.

More federal agencies made operational decisions based on performance data than in prior years, showing progress meeting the goals of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act according to a survey conducted by the Government Accountability Office. 

Conducted over the course of 2020, the survey asked managers from 24 federal agencies about the frequency that they referenced performance information in making business decisions. 

“GAO’s 2020 survey of federal managers showed that the reported use of performance information in decision-making generally increased across the federal government compared to prior surveys,” the report read. 

Performance information is a variety of specific indicators that program managers use to track progress toward a goal or objective, Alissa Czyz, acting director of GAO’s Strategic Issues group, told Nextgov. The performance information documented in the report is both quantitative and qualitative, and include metrics such as customer reviews and program efficiency or quality.

The GAO compiles an index based on the weighted average of the survey questions. The index then measures if an agency is using more or less performance information in their business operations.

Among the agencies surveyed, NASA, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Small Business Administration, and Veterans Affairs Department were the bureaus that saw the largest increases in using performance information to drive decision-making.

NASA in particular told GAO researchers that the agency’s efforts to use performance information more has helped it make progress in its acquisition management.

“We found that since December 2018, the agency had increased the use of earned value management data,” NASA officials wrote to the GAO in the survey. “Subsequently, NASA officials said that having leadership discuss the data at these reviews has become a helpful tool for project performance.”

Some of the data NASA reviewed compared the value of work accomplished in a given timeframe against the cost of the work accomplished and the planned value of the work for that period. These metrics were eventually presented in an agency performance review.

The GAO issued this study pursuant to the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018. This law requires federal agencies to submit policy making plans to the Office of Management and Budget and Congress every year. 

In each plan, agencies must showcase how they will use qualitative and quantitative data to improve agency functioning and policymaking. 

Compared to the last GAO performance information report, conducted in 2017, the watchdog found that there were increases in uses of performance data to drive policy decisions across the majority of agencies surveyed, with data-driven reviews being among the most beneficial forms of performance information usage and analysis among agencies. 

Two of the agencies surveyed, Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Agency for International Development––both of which showed high increases in the use of performance data––issued comments following the report.

“VA continues to augment our robust governance approaches to embed evidence-based decision-making more firmly in our framework,” Tanya Bradsher, VA chief of staff, wrote. 

Officials at the GAO were broadly pleased with the widespread increases in performance information usage across federal agencies. Czyz said that congressional engagement and oversight are likely motivating factors in agencies’ adoption of more data in their daily operations and management.

“The results of our 2020 survey are very encouraging. Managers are clearly reporting that performance information is being used more in decision making than in the past at most federal agencies we surveyed,” she said. “We are hopeful these positive trends continue.”