Obama's performance agenda: Stealthy and radical

Emerging performance initiatives could become the foundation for the collaborative governance models of the future, writes John M. Kamensky, a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He is also a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.

Grumblers are complaining that the Obama administration has not actively defined a performance agenda, even as it approaches the halfway point of its first term. In reality, the Obama team has a fairly radical agenda. It just happens to be using a stealth approach to initiating it.

The administration’s performance initiatives could have profound implications for the government performance community. They include changes in reporting, an emphasis on performance goals and a reliance on transparency efforts, such as Recovery.gov, the IT Dashboard and the promised performance Web portal.

To remain relevant, the federal performance community will need to quickly move from its traditional emphasis on standardized, periodic reporting models, in which a central staff conducts analysis. It must move to a new model that embraces greater transparency, open data standards, shared data elements and near real-time reporting of performance information in a form that targeted stakeholders will easily understand.

The Office of Management and Budget released guidance in July that hints at this new model, and the agency said the coming year will be a transition year for how government handles performance information. But that transition won’t be easy. Here is what is likely to happen:

  • Agency performance professionals will need to develop approaches that share and report performance information related to a strategic outcome, such as climate change. That will require developing mechanisms for information gathering and reporting that cut across agencies and programs. The approach isn’t new, but it will be greatly expanded. The British government has been doing it for years by using public service agreements that are remarkably similar to the Obama administration’s high-priority performance goals.
  • Agencies will increasingly be expected to report real-time, cross-program, transparent data. That implies that the collection, analysis and reporting of public performance information will likely be highly distributed across sectors without a central owner of the system. For example, health-related outcomes might rely on data drawn from federal, state, local, private-sector and nonprofit sources. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have already figured that out. Other policy areas — such as housing, energy, environment, social services and education — are at different levels of sophistication and will be challenged to join this new world.
  • Agencies will be expected to provide relevant information to a spectrum of users. In some cases, the users will be technically savvy enough to manipulate raw data, and in other cases, the stakeholders will be average people. Data.gov might be fine for developers and analysts, but it isn’t an acceptable solution for average people — or members of Congress. Agencies will need to be creative and develop intuitive presentations of their data, similar to the reporting of stimulus spending via Recovery.gov.
  • Government performance professionals will need to find ways to validate the quality and legitimacy of their data, even if it appears on a nongovernment Web site, so others cannot distort it. In addition, third parties might need to apply their own analytic and visualization tools for users and mash up government data from different sources or combine it with data from nongovernment sources to aid in interpretation. For example, the National Obesity Comparison Tool, which a private company developed, relies on federal data from CDC, mapping data from other sources and the company’s visualization software. Unsettling? Perhaps, but this might be the future of performance reporting.

If successfully implemented, these new ways of creating, collecting, sharing, validating and interpreting performance data could become the foundation for the collaborative governance models of the future. And the government performance community has a role to play in shaping them.