Survey: PIOs turn focus to quality, not quantity

Wednesday - 1/9/2013, 3:19pm EST

Matthew Piester, deputy PIO at HHS, on "In Depth" with Francis Rose

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There's an old adage in federal management circles: You can't manage what you can't measure. And now, performance improvement officers say agencies are getting better at the measuring part — using data to driver better performance.

Overall, 71 percent of agency PIOs who responded to an exclusive Federal News Radio survey said their agency makes good use of performance data, and a similarly high number of respondents said the administration focus on performance management has increased in recent years.

The survey, sent to 46 PIOs or deputy PIOs over the summer, garnered a 15 percent response rate. Most of the PIOs who responded hailed from small agencies.

One possible challenge facing agency PIOs is the sheer volume of data they're confronted with. But the solution, according to the officials surveyed, is to put the focus on quality analysis.

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Matthew Piester, deputy PIO at the Department of Health and Human Services, said his agency tracks a total of 1,000 different performance measures. But HHS also zeroes in on a more specific subset of the data, using the two-year-old Government Performance and Results Act Modernization Act as a guide, he explained.

That helps to narrow the range of data the agency actually gauges, Piester said.

"(With) the other measures, while still important and while still tracked, spend a little bit less time on and so you can use the resources that you have accordingly," he said in an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose.

The focus on quality over quantity is especially important given the budget constraints nearly all agencies are facing.

"From a data perspective, there's always a desire to have more," Piester said. "And from a resources perspective, it's always nice to be able to have more folks engaged on it. But at the same time, constraints are what they are."

Attention from the top

The focus on better performance management hasn't occurred in a vacuum. Seventy-one percent of respondents said the Office of Management and Budget's attention to the issue has increased over the past three years.

"Shelley Metzenbaum (OMB's associate director for performance and personnel) and her teams ... are doing a fantastic job with leading a culture change of performance management across the federal government," one of the survey respondents commented. "The Small Agency Council has formed a performance improvement committee, as well, and the small agencies are shadowing their efforts. Progress is evident, and there is more to come."

Piester cited Performance.gov, which tracks agencies' performance on governmentwide high-priority goals.

"We've been very much engaged with (OMB) from our perspective in updating our information for them and engaging in that process," Piester said.

Both OMB and agencies see the benefit in communicating agency successes. But, used effectively, it can also leverage greater accountability.

"If you're ultimately providing information that says you're not meeting your expectations, but you're the only one providing it, that's a very uncomfortable position to be in," Piester said. "But when you present it amongst other agencies or other operating divisions... and you are able to communicate it in a holistic way — here are the positives as well as the negatives — I think that's a much more useful means to do it."

However, Performance.gov, which OMB recently revamped, does not encompass small agencies, which was reflected in the survey. All of the respondents to the survey (a majority of whom work at small agencies) said the site was "neither helpful nor detrimental to my agency's performance improvement."

Survey respondents also were divided on several key questions.

An even split of 40 percent separated respondents on the question of whether the focus on agencies' high-priority goals had improved the mission or not even made a difference. Similarly, respondents were split evenly on the question of whether the administration's evidence-based approach to analyzing programs was effective or not.

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