TCS Daily

Taking Government a-PART

By Pate McMichael - August 20, 2004 12:00 AM

Congress started its "district work period" -- that is, its summer vacation -- having funded only one of 13 agency budgets for fiscal year 2005. That means when legislators return to Washington in September, they must pass the largest omnibus spending package in United States history and raise the national debt limit to $8 trillion.

Perhaps now's a good time to ask: What have we been getting for our money?

Answering this question has gotten easier since 2002, when the Bush administration created something called the Program Assessment Rating Tool and made it a central part of its management agenda. By evaluating individual programs with hard questions that warrant a yes or no answer, PART reviews the individual purpose, scope, impact and relevance of every federal program and assigns each one an "effective," "moderately effective," "adequate" or "ineffective" rating. Programs that haven't gathered the necessary empirical evidence to measure results receive a "Results Not Demonstrated" rating.

The rating tool was drafted by Bush appointees in the Office of Management and Budget -- the agency that prepares the President's budget and implements the President's Management Agenda -- and has been annually improved based on agency recommendations and Government Accountability Office criticism. By 2006 every federal program will have been PARTed at least once.

PART questionnaires are jointly answered by OMB examiners and agency staffers. Even though OMB makes the final edit, agencies can appeal individual answers to OMB. PART includes questions like: "Has the program demonstrated adequate progress in achieving its long-term goal? Does the program have incentives and procedures to measure and achieve efficiencies and cost effectiveness in program execution?"

To date, PART has measured 40% of the federal government and concluded that

$371 billion of taxpayer money is being spent on programs that either cannot demonstrate results or score below the 70 out of 100 "adequate" rating. One hundred and forty-seven out of 399 rated programs have been given the dreaded Results Not Demonstrated distinction while only 232 have received a score above 50.

PART ratings -- however incomplete -- provide an excellent context for asking politicians questions about domestic policy. When President George W. Bush and the Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass) face off in their first scheduled debate on September 30 at the University of Miami, let's hope budgeting topics like PART get introduced into the conversation.

Somebody needs to ask John Kerry why he opposes cuts to literacy initiatives like Even Start, a $247 million program rated ineffective, duplicative and non-responsive to increases in funding by PART. Kerry should also be asked if he would support formalizing the program review process by making it a required OMB task as has been proposed in a bill by Rep. Todd Platts (R-PA). Currently PART is a Bush administration priority, not an obligation.

That same person should ask President Bush why he proposed just 15 cuts in his FY 2005 budget when PART has concluded that over 40% of all rated programs cannot demonstrate results -- meaning the questions can't be answered because the answer is unknown. Bush should also be asked if PART ratings will influence budget decisions more or less in his second term.

The agency review process could be taken a step further along the lines proposed by Carl De Maio, president and founder of the Performance Institute, a private think tank focused exclusively on performance-based management. De Maio recommends creating a non-partisan agency called the Congressional Office of Program Performance or COPP and staffing it jointly with General Accountability Office and Congressional Budget Office personnel.

The goal is for government to use PART scores to make the executive branch more transparent, accountable and efficacious. Former New Zealand cabinet minister and director of the Mercatus Center's Government Accountability Project, Maurice McTigue, put it best in his most recent Congressional testimony:

"(T)he results of the assessment of individual programs should not be considered in isolation, but should now be used to compare the results of both similar and dissimilar programs focusing on the same outcome ... The process of comparing programs across outcomes creates competition for what would effectively be a common pool of money."

Publicly-entrusted funds deserve transparency and results regardless of who holds the purse. Government and business should not be held to separate standards of accountability just because one makes the rules and the other pays taxes.

Pate McMichael is a graduate student in journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia.


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