Government failure kept in the dark

August 16, 2006|By KRISTINA RASMUSSEN

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Four years after the Bush administration started shining light on the performance of federal programs, some lawmakers in charge of the appropriations process want to scuttle back into a dark corner, away from accountability.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education recently passed an appropriations bill (including $141.9 billion in discretionary spending) that effectively forbids any of the funds from being spent on a government transparency measure - namely, the Bush administration's Program Assessment Rating Tool, or PART.

About a quarter of the programs rated by PART thus far are in departments affected by this legislation, so passage of such a restriction would keep a large chunk of future performance data under wraps. What does Congress have to hide?

It is no secret that taxpayers and even government officials face difficulties in measuring, let alone policing, the performance of federal agencies. Most Americans couldn't identify the purposes behind programs like the Department of Education's Even Start or the Justice Department's Weed and Seed project. They would know even less about whether these programs actually accomplish anything.

In an ongoing effort to improve government, presidents since Harry S. Truman have tried numerous initiatives to link budgeting with results. The most recent attempt is PART. By providing programs with numerical ratings and systemic recommendations, the hope is that government will become better through evaluations, thereby giving taxpayers more for their money.

The Office of Management and Budget has unveiled a Web site, www.expectmore.gov, to publicize PART ratings.

The PART asks federal agencies to answer a series of questions. Each program is then reviewed by an independent group and given a numerical rating on four weighted factors (program purpose and design, planning, management and results). Based on this evaluation, programs are designated effective, moderately effective, adequate, ineffective, or results not demonstrated (the latter two categories are defined as not performing). Recommendations for improvement accompany each rating.

The budget office decided to measure one-fifth of the federal government each year between fiscal years 2004 and 2008, and a cumulative total of 793 program reviews were included in the latest PART release.

A cursory glance at the data shows that government has become better over the past few years, but the most disturbing finding is that, four years into the PART process, more than a quarter of federal programs are not performing. In the fiscal year 2007 budget issued several months ago, 63 percent of those programs examined within the Department of Education were rated not performing, while 25 percent of Labor's and 31 percent of Health and Human Services' earned the same dubious distinction.

These politically inconvenient findings have disturbed Congressional appropriators to the point of inserting language effectively killing or massively altering future PART examinations. Although performance scores are often no match for the patronage and outside lobbying that serve to keep a program alive, no member of Congress wants to be seen wasting taxpayer dollars on a nonperforming program. In response, some lawmakers have opted to loot rather than shoot the messenger, by controlling the outcome of the review.

Hence, the language in the appropriations bill: "No funds in this Act shall be used to develop or participate in the development of a Program Assessment Tool (PART) analysis or study unless the Committee has approved the data bases which will be used for determining the score, and the methodology to be employed for the rating of the programs."

Just as many students would like to set the standards for grading their essays, appropriators want to set performance criteria for their pet projects.

This development speaks to another concern - the intrinsic desire to show positive results (and justify funding) could result in appropriators and agencies manipulating PART to preserve their favorite bureaucracies. Although some critics have derided PART as a hatchet for ending programs the administration disagrees with ideologically, PART might actually help to continue business as usual in the nation's capital.

Should Americans really expect more from government, as the Office of Management and Budget Web site tells us? Perhaps a better choice would be to rediscover the virtue of expecting less from government. Either way, Congress shouldn't mangle one of the few tools Americans have in the fight to make Washington a less dangerous place for our tax dollars.

Kristina Rasmussen is senior government affairs manager for the 350,000-member National Taxpayers Union, which advocates lower taxes and smaller government. Her e-mail is krasmussen@ntu.org.

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