AGA recommends new COO, PIO job descriptions

Friday - 1/20/2012, 7:42pm EST

A new push to improve performance also could change how the government chooses chief operating officers, with an eye toward candidates who find true interest in data-driven reviews of federal programs.

The recommendation, by the Association of Government Accountants (AGA), would bake performance improvement into the chief operating officer's job description and require the Office of Presidential Personnel (OPP), which is instrumental in hiring political appointees, to determine how willing and able candidates are to actively pursue data-driven performance improvement programs. Without that, AGA said, sustaining the programs becomes more difficult.

The COOs' "primary interest has always been policy programs. They see themselves as an alter ego to the head of the agency," said Harold Steinberg, the report's lead author and a former Office of Management and Budget deputy controller, during an event Friday in Washington, D.C. But "these folks have to have an interest in managing the organization and in using data to drive the organization."

Steinberg said OPP should disqualify candidates who do not have that interest.

Clearing up the org chart

The AGA study also recommended evaluating where performance improvement officers fall on agencies' organization charts and converting every PIO position into a full time role.

"The placement of the PIO in relation to the COO, plus the extent to which he or she has other responsibilities, is strongly indicative of the seriousness with which an agency will use performance information to drive performance improvement," the report said. "The GPRA Modernization Act states that the PIO shall report directly to the COO. A study performed in 2010 by the Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton found that the PIOs frequently reported to someone other than the COO and, 'believe they are too low in the organization to play more than a compliance role, and rarely act with the agency's operating components other than to request information for external reporting purposes.'"

Steinberg said the PIO must have the attributes of a COO who likes to manage.

"He's willing to use data to see how things are going, ask the questions of people underneath them are they going in the direction they want," he said. "So the people who do the hiring of deputy secretaries, OPP, they need to understand that the people they are interviewing for those positions have to have those attributes and those interests."

Steinberg added the model for PIOs could be similar to the one for chief financial officers where there is a political and a career deputy. He said political appointees have more clout, but career people have better knowledge of the agency, and both would provide benefits.

Agencies are improving

Despite finding a number of shortcomings, the AGA found that the data-driven performance review process is working.

"Several instances were described in which analysis of performance measures revealed performance shortcomings, alternatives were explored and adopted, and performance improved," the study said.

The analysis comes in the form of data-driven, or at least data-informed, reviews of programs, according to AGA.

Within 30 days of the end of each quarter, for example, the Justice Department analyzes its budget and performance measures using performance and financial information it collects.

And every month, the Federal Aviation Administration's management team, including the administrator, meets with the PIO to review performance measures.

"Every organization should be looking at everything within their portfolio on a somewhat regular basis and saying 'Have we outgrown the need for this? Can we stop doing this?' said Toni Trombecky, the Federal Aviation Administration's strategic planning manager. "It's like making buggy whips, at some point you don't have make a buggy whip. So what do we stop doing? Where do we continue to put our efforts? Where do we increase our efforts? Those are strategic decisions the most senior management has to make almost on a regular basis."

This high-level review sessions filter down to other areas of an agency, including program and mission support components, AGA said. "Pre-meetings with goal leaders acting as the COO enable the goal leaders to hold contributing offices accountable. Holding regional and program managers accountable for results prompts them to look at their measures to ascertain problems and opportunities."

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