Performance.gov faces identity crisis

Friday - 6/7/2013, 6:05pm EDT

Performance.gov, the federal government's online repository for information about agency goals and performance metrics, faces an identity crisis.

Nearly two years after the site launched, the Office of Management and Budget still hasn't clearly defined its purpose or its intended audience, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

Is the site to be used primarily by agencies to coordinate and collaborate on cross-agency goals, or is it designed for members of the public to keep track of what agencies are up to?

Conflicting answers from users and vague guidance from OMB need to be resolved for the site to operate more effectively, GAO said.

The 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act mandated OMB make information about program performance accessible through a publicly available website. The agency rolled out Performance.gov in August 2011.

For its analysis, GAO compared Performance.gov to other federal websites that compile government data, such as USASpending.gov and Recovery.gov, and surveyed likely users of the site, including federal agencies, congressional committees, transparency groups and academic institutions.

Disagreement over website's audience

The General Services Administration's HowTo.gov guidelines offer best practices for federal website development. Chief among those guidelines is the need to determine a website's purpose and who its audience will be, GAO reported.

But GAO found varying expectations among different users of the site.

OMB staff indicated to GAO that they view the site as a tool to allow agencies to collaborate on cross-agency goals. But agencies interviewed by GAO said leadership and staff do not typically use the site as a resource.

"According to agency officials, agencies have information sources tailored to meet their needs, and Performance.gov does not contain critical indicators or the ability to display some visualizations used for internal agency performance reviews," GAO's report stated. "Agency officials stressed instead that they view Performance.gov primarily as an external reporting tool so that the public and other external stakeholders can get a sense for how agencies are performing on key priorities."

In its initial guidance for creating the site, OMB said the site would serve as the "public window on the federal government's goals and performance."

However, some users told GAO that while the general public is listed as a potential audience for the site, "the detailed, technical nature of the website seemed primarily oriented toward a government, rather than a public, audience."

OMB told GAO the site will shift in the future to become more "public facing" and "citizen centric."

GAO: Site needs to collect better feedback

Another leading practice for federal websites is soliciting feedback from users — through focus groups, outreach and "usability tests."

GAO found the site's designers took steps to gather comments from agencies on the initial design and implementation of the site. But they still have a ways to go in becoming more responsive to everyday users. The site's current efforts to gather user reaction amount to collecting suggestions via its "Feedback" page, GAO found. And OMB officials acknowledged those suggestions haven't been particularly helpful.

OMB told GAO it hasn't yet conducted any usability tests for the site but planned to do so beginning in September.

In addition, Performance.gov isn't currently integrated with social media, which limits the extent to which content can be easily shared by users. In fact, the website isn't even linked to by many other federal websites, including Data.gov and the OMB and White House website home pages.

"As one potential user from a government transparency organization pointed out," the GAO report stated, "if Performance.gov is not connected in any meaningful way with other federal information and data websites, it may not be a site that government data users would naturally go to."

GAO recommended OMB — along with GSA and the Performance Improvement Council — spell out the ways different groups of people, from agency and congressional staff to the general public, can use the information on the site and gain access to the information they're seeking. GAO also advised OMB to be more consistent in collecting site metrics and user feedback. OMB staff agreed with the recommendations.

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