oversight

Managing For Results: Enhancing the Usefulness of GPRA Consultations Between the Executive Branch and Congress

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-03-10.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Subcommittee on Management, Information
                          and Technology
                          Committee on Government Reform and Oversight
                          House of Representatives

For Release on Delivery
Expected at
10:00 a.m. EST
                          MANAGING FOR RESULTS
Monday
March 10, 1997

                          Enhancing the Usefulness
                          of GPRA Consultations
                          Between the Executive
                          Branch and Congress

                          Statement of L. Nye Stevens, Director
                          Federal Management and Workforce Issues
                          General Government Division




GAO/T-GGD-97-56
Summary

Managing for Results: Enhancing the
Usefulness of GPRA Consultations Between
the Executive Branch and Congress
              Under the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), each agency
              is to develop a strategic plan to lay out its mission, long-term goals, and
              strategies for achieving those goals. Agencies are required to submit their
              plans to Congress by September 30, 1997, and the plans are to take into
              consideration the views of Congress and other stakeholders. To ensure
              that these views are considered, GPRA requires that as agencies develop
              their strategic plans, they consult with Congress and solicit the views of
              other stakeholders.

              Although GPRA requires congressional consultations, it does not specify
              what constitutes a consultation, at what point in the development process
              of a strategic plan the consultations should take place, or which
              committees should be involved in consultations. Both committee staff and
              agency officials GAO interviewed recognize that the consultations on
              strategic planning are important to developing an agency plan that
              appropriately takes into account the views of Congress. However, as is to
              be expected during the initial stages of a new effort, all participants are
              struggling to define how the consultation process can work effectively.

              Although the establishment of a set of best practices, or the attainment of
              common understandings of what consultations will entail, can help ensure
              that those consultations are as productive as possible, no single set of best
              practices has yet emerged. Instead, GAO’s work on preliminary
              consultations suggested some general approaches that may contribute to
              the usefulness of future consultations. These approaches include creating
              shared expectations, engaging the right people, addressing differing views
              of what is to be discussed, and establishing a consultation process that is
              iterative. A recent letter to the Director of the Office of Management and
              Budget from the Speaker of the House, the House Majority Leader, the
              Senate Majority Leader, and key committee chairmen from both the House
              and the Senate on GPRA-required consultations should provide a good
              foundation for successful consultations. Ultimately, the guidelines
              included in the letter, the approaches GAO identified, and other practices
              that may emerge as agency officials and committee staff continue to learn
              to work together in developing strategic plans, can help create a set of
              practices that promote successful consultations. Successful consultations,
              in turn, can promote a basic understanding among the stakeholders of the
              competing demands that confront most agencies and congressional staff,
              the limited resources available to them, and how those demands and
              resources require careful and continuous balancing.




              Page 1                                               GAO/T-GGD-97-56 (410110)
Statement

Managing for Results: Enhancing the
Usefulness of GPRA Consultations Between
the Executive Branch and Congress
              Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

              I am pleased to be here today to discuss ways of enhancing the usefulness
              of consultations between executive branch agencies and Congress, as the
              agencies develop their strategic plans. Under the Government
              Performance and Results Act (GPRA), each agency is to develop a strategic
              plan to lay out its mission, long-term goals, and strategies for achieving
              those goals. Agencies are required to submit their plans to Congress by
              September 30, 1997. The strategic plans are to take into consideration the
              views of Congress and other stakeholders. To ensure that these views are
              taken into account, GPRA requires agencies to consult with Congress and
              solicit the views of other stakeholders as they develop their strategic
              plans.

              These consultations provide an important opportunity for Congress and
              the executive branch to work together to ensure that agency missions are
              focused, goals are specific and results-oriented, and strategies and funding
              expectations are appropriate and reasonable. In previous testimony before
              the full Committee on February 12, we identified examples of
              management-related challenges stemming from unclear agency missions;
              the lack of results-oriented performance goals; the absence of
              well-conceived strategies to meet those goals; and the failure to gather and
              use accurate, reliable, and timely program performance and cost
              information to measure progress in achieving results.1 We also described
              how GPRA can assist Congress and the executive branch in addressing
              these challenges and improving the management of federal agencies.

              Congress and the administration have both demonstrated that they
              recognize that successful consultations are key to the success of GPRA and
              therefore to sustained improvements in federal management. For example,
              Congress signaled its strong commitment to GPRA and the consultation
              process through a February 25, 1997, letter to the Director of the Office of
              Management and Budget (OMB) from the Speaker of the House, the House
              Majority Leader, the Senate Majority Leader, and key committee chairmen
              from both the House and the Senate. The letter underscored the
              importance that the congressional majority places on the implementation
              of GPRA, noted a willingness on the part of Congress to work cooperatively
              with the administration, and established expectations for consultations.
              The administration also has shown its commitment to consulting with
              Congress on agency strategic plans through a letter from the Director of

              1
               See Managing for Results: Using GPRA to Assist Congressional and Executive Branch Decisionmaking
              (GAO/T-GGD-97-43, Feb. 12, 1997).



              Page 2                                                             GAO/T-GGD-97-56 (410110)
Statement
Managing for Results: Enhancing the
Usefulness of GPRA Consultations Between
the Executive Branch and Congress




OMB to executive agencies sent last November and earlier guidance to
agencies on the preparation of strategic plans.

This willingness on the part of Congress and the administration to work
together is a likely precondition to successful consultations. Nonetheless,
the consultations may still prove difficult because they entail a different
working relationship between agencies and Congress than has generally
prevailed in the past. In a forthcoming report, we will compare and
contrast key design elements and approaches of GPRA with those of past
federal initiatives that sought to link resources to results, such as the
Planning-Programming-Budgeting System (PPBS) and Zero-Base Budgeting
(ZBB). One clear lesson that emerged from those prior initiatives is that
constructive communication across the branches of government is
difficult, but absolutely essential if management reform is to be sustained.
Discussions between agencies and Congress on strategic planning are
likely to underscore the competing and conflicting goals of many federal
programs, as well as the sometimes different expectations of the
legislative and executive branches.

Over the past few months, we have been asked to help brief a number of
congressional committees on GPRA and, in some cases, directly assist them
in their consultations with agencies. Building in part on that effort, and at
the request of the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, we have
been examining selected consultations on strategic plans that have taken
place thus far. As part of related work we were doing in January looking at
agencies’ progress in developing strategic plans, officials at the
headquarters level, from 11 of the 24 largest executive branch agencies,
said that they had been in contact with congressional committees—often
at the initiative of Congress—on their strategic plans. Headquarters-level
officials in the remaining 13 executive branch agencies said that although
they had not met with congressional staff, officials from some of their
components had met with authorizing committees and appropriating
subcommittees on matters related to strategic planning.

For our current review, we selected consultations to cover a range of
types of interactions (from single meetings to sustained contacts), types of
agencies (e.g., regulatory, direct service, and business-like), and type of
congressional committee (e.g., authorizing and appropriating). Based on
our selection criteria, we interviewed staff from five House committees
who participated in the selected consultations with agencies. These
interviews included staff from both authorizing committees and the
appropriations committee. We also interviewed officials from 9 of the 11



Page 3                                               GAO/T-GGD-97-56 (410110)
                         Statement
                         Managing for Results: Enhancing the
                         Usefulness of GPRA Consultations Between
                         the Executive Branch and Congress




                         executive agencies who participated in those consultations. All of the
                         selected consultations took place before the congressional letter was sent
                         in late February. Our work was aimed at identifying approaches that, in
                         the view of congressional staff and agency officials, have the potential to
                         enhance the usefulness of the consultations required by GPRA. As agreed
                         with the Chairman of the House Budget Committee and this
                         Subcommittee, I will discuss the results of that work today.


                         Congressional staff and agency officials expressed a widespread
Number and Scope of      appreciation for the essential role that consultations can play in the
Consultations, Thus      development of a strategic plan that is useful to the agency and
Far, Provide a Limited   appropriately takes into account the views of Congress. Although GPRA
                         requires congressional consultations, it does not specify what constitutes a
Basis for Identifying    consultation, at what point in the development process of a strategic plan
Useful Practices         the consultation or consultations should take place, or which committees
                         should be involved in consultations. Establishing a set of best practices or
                         reaching a common understanding of what consultations will entail can
                         help ensure that the consultations are as productive as possible. However,
                         congressional staff and agency officials said they believed that because of
                         their generally limited experience with such consultations, it will take time
                         for Congress and agencies to develop a base of common experiences from
                         which to build a set of specific best practices for future consultations.

                         Most committee staff and agency officials had positive comments about
                         the meetings that have been held thus far. However, both committee staff
                         and agency officials—committee staff in particular—stressed the very
                         limited nature of the meetings. The meetings varied significantly, ranging
                         from routine base-touching sessions with congressional staff as part of an
                         agency’s broad scan of internal and external stakeholders, to substantive
                         and candid dialogue on an agency’s mission, strategic goals, strategies to
                         achieve those goals, and outcome-related performance measures.

                         Most committee staff and some agency officials we spoke with
                         characterized the meetings that have taken place thus far as briefings,
                         preconsultations, or preliminary consultations. Thus, at this early point, no
                         single set of best practices for consultations has emerged from the
                         preliminary meetings. Instead, committee staff and agency officials
                         suggested some general approaches that center on the creation of shared
                         expectations between committee staff and agency officials that may
                         contribute to the usefulness of such consultations.




                         Page 4                                               GAO/T-GGD-97-56 (410110)
                       Statement
                       Managing for Results: Enhancing the
                       Usefulness of GPRA Consultations Between
                       the Executive Branch and Congress




                       By working together to create shared expectations, consultation
Creating Shared        participants can establish an understanding of what they want to discuss,
Expectations Was       what they do not want to enter into the discussions, and what they expect
Identified as an       to achieve from their discussions. To avoid misunderstandings and
                       consequent disappointment, both committee staff and agency officials
Essential Starting     identified a need to define “up front” what they expect to achieve from
Point for Successful   consultations. For example, one committee staff member said that he
                       asked for and expected to receive background information in the initial
Consultations          meeting with an agency about what the agency had done to achieve the
                       requirements of GPRA, and that his expectations were met. However, in
                       another case, two committee staff who asked for and expected a
                       discussion on an agency’s mission statement, its consistency with statute,
                       and its relationship to the agency’s strategic goals, among other things,
                       were disappointed. Instead, they received a 1-1/2 hour slide show on the
                       requirements of GPRA, even though they had told the agency beforehand
                       that they did not need such a presentation.

                       The congressional letter provided guidelines that are intended to make
                       consultations more productive. For example, the letter described
                       expectations for the contents of draft strategic plans and said that
                       agencies should provide relevant materials in advance of consultations.
                       The congressional letter also provided a list of the types of topics that the
                       congressional majority expects to be discussed during consultations. Our
                       work suggests that the guidelines in the congressional letter should go a
                       long way toward assisting committees and agencies in conducting their
                       consultations by helping to establish a shared understanding of the
                       congressional majority’s expectations. For example, two committee staff
                       members told us that they encouraged agencies to provide them with
                       relevant documents, including early drafts of strategic plans, before the
                       meetings. This enabled them to prepare questions and suggestions in
                       advance. It also helped them focus better on the presentations and
                       discussions taking place during the meetings by eliminating the need to
                       read and respond to the documents at the same time. Another committee
                       staff member stressed the importance of limiting the materials provided as
                       part of consultations to critical documents, because congressional staff
                       workloads severely constrain the time available to read additional
                       paperwork.

                       Although the congressional letter helps to establish generic expectations
                       that would be useful in helping to provide a good foundation for
                       successful consultations, both committee staff and agency officials we
                       interviewed stressed that consultations ultimately must be tailored to the



                       Page 5                                                GAO/T-GGD-97-56 (410110)
Statement
Managing for Results: Enhancing the
Usefulness of GPRA Consultations Between
the Executive Branch and Congress




individual experiences and needs of congressional committees and
agencies. More specifically, congressional staff and agency officials noted
that the historical relationships between an agency and Congress, the
strategic issues confronting the agency, and the degree of policy
agreement or disagreement within Congress and between Congress and
the administration on those strategic issues will heavily influence the way
consultations are carried out.

They also noted that these political differences will affect the probability
of success of the consultations from either a the congressional or agency
perspective. For example, one committee staff member said that major
disagreements existed between the political parties as to the basic
direction of an agency under his committee’s jurisdiction. According to
this staff member, when subcommittee staff met with this agency’s
officials, the discussion quickly became quite confrontational, and the
session only served to reinforce tensions rather than resolve them. To
avoid repeating this situation, the staff member has sought to focus
subsequent meetings on elements of the agency’s strategic plan on which
the possibility for consensus exists, such as how best to manage programs,
and either leave issues arising from contentious policy differences for later
consideration or address them through correspondence with the agency.
The staff member contrasted the consultations with this agency with those
engaged in with another agency, also under the jurisdiction of his
committee, where broad agreement existed between the Members of the
committee and agency officials on the appropriate goals for the agency
and how those goals should be met. In this case, he said the consultation
process differed significantly in process and tone from the one in which
strong differences existed on basic policy issues.

Our discussions with congressional staff and agency officials indicated
that consultations also are more effective when they are tailored for the
interests and knowledge levels of participants. An approach that
committee staff and agency officials generally said helped them use time
productively in initial consultations consisted of gearing agency
presentations to the level of interest and understanding of the committee
staff. One staff member stressed the importance of providing information
on improvements that have occurred in programs where strategic planning
has been used successfully. Two staff members said that when they had
their initial meetings with the agencies, they were just beginning to
understand what GPRA required and what the agencies were doing to fulfill
its requirements. Consequently, they favored having basic overview
briefings at those initial meetings. Other staff felt that they were already



Page 6                                               GAO/T-GGD-97-56 (410110)
                            Statement
                            Managing for Results: Enhancing the
                            Usefulness of GPRA Consultations Between
                            the Executive Branch and Congress




                            well acquainted with GPRA; they therefore said that such briefings would be
                            a waste of time. In addition, these latter staff members said that agencies
                            should encourage follow-up questions after each meeting and feedback on
                            what went well and what did not go well during the meeting.

                            Our discussions with committee staff and agency officials suggest that as
                            committees and agencies work together to create shared expectations,
                            some general approaches may contribute to the usefulness of the
                            consultations. These approaches include the need for engaging the right
                            people, addressing differing views of what is to be discussed, and
                            establishing a consultation process that is iterative.


Engaging the Right People   Including people who are knowledgeable about the topic at hand is
                            obviously important to any meeting. Almost everyone we talked with, both
                            committee staff and agency officials, stressed the importance of having
                            agency officials who can answer specific program-related questions attend
                            the consultations, as well as officials with authority to revise the agency’s
                            strategic plans. Otherwise, as both committee staff and agency officials
                            said, consultations run the risk of becoming purely a staff-driven exercise
                            that lacks a real link to agency management decisions.

                            According to committee staff, agency officials with varying responsibilities
                            need to be involved in consultations. For example, two committee staff
                            members observed that, initially, agency consultations with congressional
                            staff should include, at a minimum, officials with direct program
                            responsibility in agencies, as well as individuals from agency staff offices
                            with general planning responsibilities. According to the committee staff
                            members, the direct involvement of program-level agency officials is
                            important in order to demonstrate that decisions made as part of the
                            strategic planning process are serving as a basis for daily operations
                            within the agency. These staff members noted that a measure of GPRA’s
                            success is the identification of program officials who are able to (1) clearly
                            show how their program goals are directly linked to agency strategic goals
                            and (2) demonstrate how they are using GPRA to manage their operations.
                            According to the committee staff members, the involvement of program
                            officials also is more likely to ensure that consultations are informative for
                            both Congress and the agency.

                            Staff from two committees underscored the importance of including in the
                            consultations congressional staff who have knowledge of GPRA, strategic
                            planning, and the ways Congress can use GPRA to aid its decisionmaking.



                            Page 7                                                GAO/T-GGD-97-56 (410110)
Statement
Managing for Results: Enhancing the
Usefulness of GPRA Consultations Between
the Executive Branch and Congress




They also noted that staff who could discuss the intricacies of agency
programs and who had strong public policy and finance backgrounds also
should be brought in to the consultations to analyze the plans and the
supporting documentation that agencies provided.

As the consultations proceed, according to committee staff, the
involvement of Members of Congress and senior management within
agencies is important because Members and senior managers are
ultimately responsible for making decisions about agency strategic
directions and the level of program funding. In addition, staff said the
involvement of senior management demonstrates their personal
commitment and, in cases where that commitment may not be present, is
helpful to building that commitment. For example, one committee staff
member said that the higher the level of agency management involved in
consultations, the better the quality of the agency testimonies at oversight
hearings and the greater the importance given to GPRA and the strategic
planning process within the agencies.

A staff member from another committee said that true consultation cannot
take place without engaging Members of Congress. He said that committee
staff should be involved in the initial briefings but that, as discussions
progressed, Members needed to be directly involved. Member involvement
could be obtained in a number of ways in addition to active participation
in consultation sessions. For example, Members could send letters to
agencies posing questions on strategic plans and formally documenting
their views on key issues.

Another staff member said that hearings are important because not only
do they result in Member involvement, but they also require the
participation of senior agency management. In that regard, a number of
House committees are considering holding hearings this spring, after at
least some consultations have taken place, in order to provide oversight
on agency GPRA efforts and as a way of creating a public record of
agreements reached during consultations.

Congressional staff and agency officials generally agreed that
consultations should be bipartisan and bicameral to ensure buy-in from all
cognizant parties. In addition, both committee staff and agency officials
agreed that, to the extent feasible, consultations should be held jointly
with appropriate authorizing, budget, and appropriating committees.
Committee staff recognized that due to the at times overlapping
jurisdictions of congressional committees, obtaining the involvement of all



Page 8                                               GAO/T-GGD-97-56 (410110)
                             Statement
                             Managing for Results: Enhancing the
                             Usefulness of GPRA Consultations Between
                             the Executive Branch and Congress




                             interested congressional committees in a coordinated approach to
                             consultations can be challenging. The often overlapping or fragmented
                             nature of federal program efforts—a problem that has been extensively
                             documented in our work—underscores the importance of a coordinated
                             consultation process.2 In that regard, the effort now under way in the
                             House to form teams of congressional staff from different committees to
                             have a direct role in the consultation process should prove helpful.

                             From our discussions with committee staff and agency officials, it was not
                             apparent that there was consistency in the meetings that have been held
                             thus far. Some agencies have met with their authorizing committees;
                             others with their appropriators. Of the five House committees whose staff
                             we interviewed, four committees included minority staff in their meetings.
                             And although some House committee staff attempted to include Senate
                             staff and staff from other House committees, their attempts thus far have
                             met with only limited success.

                             Committee staff and agency officials often favored agencies’ obtaining the
                             views of other stakeholders in developing draft strategic plans before
                             congressional consultations took place. One committee staff member said
                             that stakeholders could provide information that could help an agency
                             show a link between the achievement of its programs’ strategic goals and
                             the resources required to achieve them. An agency official said that
                             stakeholders have helped to identify the major strategic issues facing his
                             agency. For example, he said that stakeholders helped to identify
                             perceived strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges that would
                             be involved in making strategic changes and achieving his agency’s goals.
                             In addition, he said that stakeholders also helped identify future strategic
                             issues and ways to address those issues through strategic planning.


Addressing Differing Views   Committee staff and agency officials often presented differing views on
of What Is to Be Discussed   what they believed the level of detail discussed during consultations
                             should be. Congressional staff, on the whole, wanted a deeper
                             examination of the details of agency strategic plans. Specifically, some
                             staff wanted to know how programs support an agency’s achievement of
                             its strategic goals and how the achievement of the agency’s goals would be
                             determined. In contrast, other congressional staff noted that because some
                             agencies lack baseline and trend data needed to establish performance
                             goals, it is not possible to discuss program performance measures.


                             2
                             See, for example, Managing for Results: Achieving GPRA’s Objectives Requires Strong Congressional
                             Role (GAO/T-GGD-96-79, Mar. 6, 1996).



                             Page 9                                                              GAO/T-GGD-97-56 (410110)
                            Statement
                            Managing for Results: Enhancing the
                            Usefulness of GPRA Consultations Between
                            the Executive Branch and Congress




                            Therefore, the staff noted the consultations needed to focus on the
                            process of agencies’ strategic planning efforts, such as planning schedules
                            and time frames and building capacity.

                            Some agency officials, however, said that it was their general impression
                            that the consultations were to concern only their strategic plans, not
                            issues related to specific programs. As a result, these agency officials said
                            they wanted the discussions kept at a higher level—for example, on
                            agency mission and strategic goals. These officials said that they did not
                            believe that the consultation was a forum for discussing program
                            performance goals, measures, and costs. Other agency officials, however,
                            observed that agencies should be prepared to provide information on
                            programmatic issues as well as missions and goals.

                            Most committee staff agreed with this latter view, saying that agencies
                            need to be prepared to engage in discussions that go beyond mission and
                            goals to the program level and the rationale for specific performance
                            measures. For example, two committee staff members said that for
                            agencies to provide a list of goals—whether program performance goals or
                            strategic goals—without data to show why those goals were chosen and
                            how progress toward achieving the goals would be measured, was
                            meaningless. One of the two staff members said agency officials need to
                            ensure that their officials understand the importance of having data to
                            support their strategic planning efforts and of supplying those supporting
                            data to Congress as part of their consultations. The other staff member
                            explained that one reason Members and committee staff needed such
                            information was to enable them to intelligently assist agencies in selecting
                            appropriate performance measures.


Establishing a              All of the committee staff and agency officials we spoke with
Consultation Process That   acknowledged that they had just begun an iterative process that will take
Is Iterative                time to complete. In addition, both committee staff and agency officials
                            recognized that GPRA-required consultations were new and would require a
                            learning period. As a result, all staff and officials agreed that they should
                            meet as many times as both sides feel is necessary. This point is echoed in
                            the congressional letter to the Director of OMB, which emphasizes that
                            agency officials and committee staff may need to continually work on
                            updated versions of the strategic plans.

                            One committee staff member and one agency official said that it was
                            unreasonable to think that this year’s consultations would be all-inclusive



                            Page 10                                               GAO/T-GGD-97-56 (410110)
Statement
Managing for Results: Enhancing the
Usefulness of GPRA Consultations Between
the Executive Branch and Congress




and totally productive. A committee staff member added that agencies
need to have a constant dialogue with congressional staff. Finally, an
agency official said that all consultation participants must accept that to
be useful, the strategic plan must be viewed as a dynamic document,
subject to change and open to criticism by all participants.


In summary, Mr. Chairman, both committee staff and agency officials we
spoke with recognized that the consultations on strategic planning are
important to developing an agency plan that appropriately takes into
account the views of Congress. However, as is to be expected during the
initial stages of a new effort, all participants are struggling to define how
the consultation process can work effectively. As I mentioned, the letter
from Congress to OMB should be particularly helpful in this regard. In our
discussions with committee staff and agency officials, they noted some
general approaches, including engaging the right people, addressing
differing views of what is to be discussed, and establishing a consultation
process that is iterative, that may contribute to the usefulness of
consultations. Ultimately, these approaches, along with other practices
that may emerge as agency officials and committee staff continue to learn
to work together in developing strategic plans, can help create a basic
understanding among the stakeholders of the competing demands that
confront most agencies and congressional staff, the limited resources
available to them, and how those demands and resources require careful
and continuous balancing. We look forward to continuing to work with
you and other committees on GPRA.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. I would be pleased
to respond to any questions that you or Members of the Subcommittee
may have.




Page 11                                               GAO/T-GGD-97-56 (410110)
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