Warner: give feds a say in program cuts

Thursday - 2/3/2011, 7:22am EST

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By Meg Beasley
Reporter
Federal News Radio

Sen. Mark Warner has high hopes for "the biggest little bill no one has ever heard of."

Warner (D-Va.) hopes the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act (GPRA), commonly known as GPRA 2.0, will be different this time.

Last month President Obama signed the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act (GPRA), updating an almost 20-year-old law. The original legislation requires agencies to create multi-year strategic plans, annual performance plans and annual performance reports. The new law creates a clearer performance framework by defining a governance structure, and by better connecting plans, programs and performance information.

Warner spoke Wednesday about the new law at the Center for American Progress (CAP). CAP recently conducted a survey that found less than one-third of Americans believe the government can solve problems. CAP also produced a report to help agencies implement GPRA requirements. It provides a checklist that includes factors such as program impact, collaboration and adaptability.

Warner is one of the bill's champions. He said the legislation almost died several times during the lame duck session because it makes bigger changes than many lawmakers first realized.

Warner said the legislation has five key points. Agencies will:

  1. Identify 3-to-5 key goals and report quarterly. Currently agencies produce annual reports.
  2. Reduce reporting requirements by at least 10 percent in the first year.
  3. Map overlapping programs to reduce redundancy.
  4. Identify underperforming programs.
  5. Name a chief performance officer to ensure regulations are implemented.

Warner, who is on the Budget Committee, said it will hold a hearing on Wednesday to discuss implementing GPRA. Lawmakers will hear from Former Comptroller General David Walker, among others.

Warner said the first two changes will help agencies focus on measuring goals that really matter. He said too often Congress and departments add more goals without assessing their value, and agencies become overwhelmed with reporting requirements.

"When you measure everything, you often end up measuring nothing," Warner said.

The third initiative will focus on consolidating programs with similar policy goals. Warner said President Obama's State of the Union example of redundant salmon oversight is only the tip of a governmentwide iceberg.

Warner said the fourth step is probably the most important, but also the most challenging. He said agencies always are willing to talk about their success stories but not programs that are underperforming. He said, however, it is no longer a question of if the government will reduce the deficit, but when. And that will require program cuts.

Warner said the current economic climate presents many challenges but it can serve as a catalyst for government reform.

Warner served as governor of Virginia from 2002 -2006 and inherited a fiscal crisis he said was much like the one the nation faces now.

"That shortfall created a wonderful opportunity for us to rethink in a real visceral way how government operates," Warner said.

He added that states have been making program cuts for years and it is time for the federal government to absorb some of that loss.

GRPA also calls on Congress and the administration to eliminate programs that aren't working or underperforming. Agencies must identify their own underperforming programs instead of relying on OMB's annual governmentwide list of inefficient agencies.

Warner said involving agencies in assessing their own programs will cause them to improve performance on those projects they feel are truly important.

Warner wants to increase collaboration between long term federal employees and leadership in Congress and the White House. He said elected officials tend to make cuts across the board because it's the easy way out. Warner advocated a more nuanced, collaborative approach.

"Actually putting that responsibility to agency leaders, saying, 'If you're going to be confronted with budget cuts, help us figure out where you can get those cuts and be willing to publicly identify which programs are not fully performing,' I think brings a shared responsibility," said Warner. "Too often the budget office dictates this down to the agency as opposed to that being a two-way street."

Warner said supporters always emerge out of the woodwork to defend programs that are on put the chopping block, but creating an effective, efficient government will require breaking some eggs.

"We have to have the discipline to do some program elimination as a shot across the bow to say that we're serious," he said.

Warner said involving Congress in the legislation will be critical to its effectiveness. He said past reforms have failed because they were largely driven by a single executive.

"Congress has to be a partner with the executive in making clear that this is going to last beyond a particular member of the administration or for that matter, a particular administration," Warner said. "The challenge around our deficit is not going to be solved overnight."

Warner said reform will not be a straight path and will require trying a variety of approaches - and probably failing along the way.

"If we implement this the right way, this will go down as one of the more significant acts of this Congress," he said.

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