oversight

The Results Act: Observations on GSA's Strategic Plan

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-10-08.

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

                          United States General Accounting Office

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


For Release on Delivery
Expected at
10:00 a.m., EDT
                          THE RESULTS ACT
Wednesday
October 8, 1997

                          Observations on GSA’s
                          Strategic Plan
                          Statement of
                          Bernard L. Ungar, Director
                          Government Business Operations Issues
                          General Government Division




GAO/T-GGD-98-14
Summary

Results Act: Observations on GSA’s Strategic
Plan

               Under the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, executive
               agencies are to develop strategic plans in which they define their missions,
               establish results-oriented goals, and identify strategies they will use to
               achieve those goals. The Act specifies that strategic plans should contain
               six elements: (1) a mission statement; (2) agencywide long-term goals and
               objectives; (3) approaches (or strategies) and the various resources
               needed to achieve the goals and objectives; (4) a description of the
               relationship between the long-term goals/objectives and the annual
               performance plans; (5) an identification of key external factors; and (6) a
               description of how program evaluations were used to establish and revise
               strategic goals. GAO’s July 1997 report—The Results Act: Observations on
               GSA’s April 1997 Draft Strategic Plan (GAO/GGD-97-153R, July 11,
               1997)—conveyed GAO’s analysis of the April 1997 version of GSA’s draft
               plan. Since that time, GSA prepared the plan for submission to OMB and
               Congress on September 30, 1997, as required by the Results Act.

               GSA’s April 1997 draft strategic plan contained all the six components
               required by the Results Act. However, the draft plan generally lacked
               clarity, context, descriptive information, and linkages among the
               components. GSA has since made a number of improvements, and the six
               components now better achieve the purposes of the Act. However,
               additional improvements would strengthen the September 30 plan as it
               evolves over time. The September 30 plan continues to have general goals
               and objectives that seem to be expressed in terms that may be challenging
               to translate into quantitative analysis. The strategies component is an
               improvement over the prior version but would benefit from a more
               detailed discussion of how each goal will actually be accomplished.

               Although the external factors in the September 30 plan are clearer and
               provide more context, the factors are not clearly linked to the general
               goals and objectives. The program evaluations component provides a
               listing of the various program evaluations that GSA used, but it does not
               include a required schedule of future evaluations. Although the plan does a
               much better job of setting forth GSA’s statutory authorities, this addition
               could be further improved by linking the different authorities to either the
               general goals and objectives or the performance goals. The plan also refers
               to three related areas—crosscutting issues, major management problems,
               and data reliability—but the discussion is limited and not as useful as it
               could be in articulating how these issues might affect successful
               accomplishment of goals and objectives. This is especially true for major
               management and data reliability problems, which can have a negative
               impact on measuring progress and achieving the goals.



               Page 1                                                       GAO/T-GGD-98-14
Statement

The Results Act: Observations on GSA’s
Strategic Plan

               Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

               I am pleased to be here today to discuss our observations on the General
               Services Administration’s (GSA) strategic plan. This plan was prepared for
               submission to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Congress
               on September 30, 1997, as required by the Government Performance and
               Results Act of 1993 (the Results Act).1 Building on our July 1997 report on
               GSA’s April draft plan,2 I will discuss the improvements GSA has made and
               areas where GSA’s strategic plan can be improved as it evolves over time.

               GSA’s April 28 draft strategic plan contained all the six components
               required by the Results Act. However, the draft plan generally lacked
               clarity, context, descriptive information, and linkages among the
               components. GSA has since made a number of improvements, and the six
               components better achieve the purposes of the Act. However, additional
               improvements would strengthen the September 30 plan as it evolves over
               time. The September 30 plan continues to have general goals and
               objectives that seem to be expressed in terms that may be challenging to
               translate into quantitative analysis. The strategies component is an
               improvement over the prior version but would benefit from a more
               detailed discussion of how each goal will actually be accomplished.

               Although the key external factors component in the September 30 plan is
               clearer and provides more context, the factors are not clearly linked to the
               general goals and objectives. The program evaluations component
               provides a listing of the various program evaluations that GSA used, but it
               does not include the required schedule of future evaluations. Although the
               plan does a much better job of setting forth GSA’s statutory authorities,
               this addition could be further improved by linking the different authorities
               to either the general goals and objectives or the performance goals. The
               plan also refers to three related areas—crosscutting issues, major
               management problems, and data reliability—but the discussion is limited
               and not as useful as it could be in trying to assess the impact of these
               factors on meeting and measuring the goals. This is especially true for
               major management and data reliability problems, which can have a
               negative impact on measuring progress and achieving the goals.




               1
                P.L. 103-62.
               2
                The Results Act: Observations on GSA’s April 1997 Draft Strategic Plan (GAO/GGD-97-147R, July 7,
               1997)



               Page 2                                                                          GAO/T-GGD-98-14
                         Statement
                         The Results Act: Observations on GSA’s
                         Strategic Plan




                         In the 1990s, Congress put in place a statutory framework to address
Background               long-standing weaknesses in federal government operations, improve
                         federal management practices, and provide greater accountability for
                         achieving results. This framework included as its essential elements
                         financial management reform legislation, information technology reform
                         legislation, and the Results Act.

                         In enacting this framework, Congress sought to create a more focused,
                         results-oriented management and decisionmaking process within both
                         Congress and the executive branch. These laws3 seek to improve federal
                         management by responding to a need for accurate, reliable information for
                         congressional and executive branch decisionmaking. This information has
                         been badly lacking in the past, as much of our work has demonstrated.
                         Implemented together, these laws provided a powerful framework for
                         developing fully integrated information about agencies’ missions and
                         strategic priorities, data to show whether or not the goals are achieved, the
                         relationship of information technology investment to the achievement of
                         those goals, and accurate and audited financial information about the
                         costs of achieving mission results.

                         The Results Act focuses on clarifying missions, setting goals, and
                         measuring performance toward achieving those goals. It emphasizes
                         managing for results and pinpointing opportunities for improved
                         performance and increased accountability. Congress intended for the Act
                         to improve the effectiveness of federal programs by fundamentally shifting
                         the focus of management and decisionmaking away from a preoccupation
                         with tasks and services to a broader focus on results of federal programs.


Requirements Under the   Under the Results Act, executive agencies are to develop strategic plans in
Results Act              which they define their missions, establish results-oriented goals, and
                         identify strategies they will use to achieve those goals. The Act specifies
                         that all agencies’ strategic plans should have six critical components: (1) a
                         comprehensive agency mission statement; (2) agencywide long-term goals
                         and objectives for all major functions and operations; (3) approaches (or

                         3
                          The primary financial management reform legislation Congress enacted is the Chief Financial Officers
                         Act of 1990, as expanded by the Government Management Reform Act of 1994. These laws provide the
                         basis for identifying and correcting financial management weaknesses that have cost the federal
                         government billions of dollars and leave it vulnerable to waste, fraud, and mismanagement. They also
                         set expectations for agencies to deploy modern systems to replace existing antiquated, often manual
                         processes; develop better performance and cost measures; and design results-oriented reports on the
                         government’s financial condition and operating performance by integrating budget, accounting, and
                         program information. Information technology reform legislation, including the Paperwork Reduction
                         Act of 1995 and the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, was based on the best practices used by leading public
                         and private organizations to more effectively manage information technology.



                         Page 3                                                                           GAO/T-GGD-98-14
                    Statement
                    The Results Act: Observations on GSA’s
                    Strategic Plan




                    strategies) to achieve the goals and objectives and the various resources
                    needed; (4) a description of the relationship between the long-term
                    goals/objectives and the annual performance plans required by the Act;
                    (5) an identification of key factors, external to the agency and beyond its
                    control, that could significantly affect achievement of the strategic goals;
                    and (6) a description of how program evaluations were used to establish
                    and revise strategic goals and a schedule for future program evaluations.


                    We reported in July that the April 28 draft plan included the six
Summary of Key      components required by the Results Act and the general goals and
Observations From   objectives in the plan reflected GSA’s major statutory responsibilities.
Our July Report     However, our analysis showed that the plan could have better met the
                    purposes of the Act and related OMB guidance. Two of the required
                    components—how goals and objectives were to be achieved and program
                    evaluations—needed more descriptive information on how goals and
                    objectives were to be achieved, how program evaluations were used in
                    setting goals, and what the schedule would be for future evaluations to
                    better achieve the purposes of the Act. The four other required
                    components—mission statement, general goals and objectives, key
                    external factors, and relating performance goals to general goals and
                    objectives—were more responsive to the Act but needed greater clarity
                    and context. We also noted that the general goals and objectives and the
                    mission statement in the draft plan did not emphasize economy and
                    efficiency, as a reflection of taxpayers’ interests. Also, the general goals
                    and objectives seem to have been expressed in terms that may be
                    challenging to translate into quantitative or measurable analysis, and there
                    could have been better linkages between the various components of the
                    plan.

                    We also reported that the plan could have been made more useful to GSA,
                    Congress, and other stakeholders by providing a fuller description of
                    statutory authorities and an explicit discussion of crosscutting functions,
                    major management problems, and the adequacy of data and systems.
                    Although the plan reflected the major pieces of legislation that establish
                    GSA’s mission and explained how GSA’s mission is linked to key statutes,
                    we reported that GSA could provide other useful information, such as
                    listing laws that broaden its responsibilities as a central management
                    agency and which are reflected in the goals and objectives.

                    Relatedly, the draft plan did not discuss the potential for crosscutting
                    issues to arise or how these issues might affect successful



                    Page 4                                                        GAO/T-GGD-98-14
                        Statement
                        The Results Act: Observations on GSA’s
                        Strategic Plan




                        accomplishment of goals and objectives. It also made no mention of
                        whether GSA coordinated the plan with its stakeholders. The plan was
                        also silent on the formidable management problems we have identified
                        over the years—issues that are important because they could have a
                        serious impact on whether GSA can achieve its strategic goals. Finally, the
                        plan made no mention of how data limitations would affect its ability to
                        measure performance and ultimately manage its programs. We reported
                        that consideration of these areas would give GSA a better framework for
                        developing and achieving its goals and help stakeholders better
                        understand GSA’s operating constraints and environment.


                        The September 30 plan reflects a number of the improvements that we
Improvements Made       suggested in our July 1997 report. The clarity of the September 30 plan is
in the Strategic Plan   improved and it provides more context, descriptive information, and
                        linkages within and among the six components that are required by the
                        Act. Compared to the April 28 draft, the September 30 plan generally
                        should provide stakeholders with a better understanding of GSA’s overall
                        mission and strategic outlook. Our analysis of the final plan also showed
                        that, in line with our suggestion, GSA placed more emphasis on economy
                        and efficiency in the comprehensive mission statement and general goals
                        and objectives components. The September 30 plan also generally
                        described the operational processes, staff skills, and technology required,
                        as well as the human, information, and other resources needed, to meet
                        the goals and objectives. The strategic plan now contains a listing of
                        program evaluations that GSA used to prepare the plan and a more
                        comprehensive discussion of the major pieces of legislation that serve as a
                        basis for its mission, reflecting additional suggestions we made in our
                        July 1997 report.

                        Furthermore, the September 30 plan’s overall improvement in clarity and
                        context should help decisionmakers and other stakeholders better
                        understand the crosscutting, governmentwide nature of GSA’s operations
                        as a central management agency. The September 30 plan makes some
                        reference to major management problems in the program evaluations
                        component and also addresses the importance of data reliability in the
                        general goals and objectives component. The improvements that GSA has
                        made are a step in the right direction, and the six components better
                        achieve the purposes of the Act. However, we believe that additional
                        improvements, which are described in the following section, would
                        strengthen the strategic plan as it evolves over time.




                        Page 5                                                      GAO/T-GGD-98-14
                        Statement
                        The Results Act: Observations on GSA’s
                        Strategic Plan




                        As we discussed in our July 7, 1997, report on the draft plan, the
Strategic Plan Can Be   September 30 plan continues to have general goals and objectives that
Further Improved        seem to be expressed in terms that may be challenging to translate into
                        quantitative or measurable analysis. This could make it difficult to
                        determine whether they are actually being achieved. For example, the goal
                        to “compete effectively for the federal market” has such objectives as
                        “provide quality products and services at competitive prices and achieve
                        significant savings” and “open GSA to marketplace competition where
                        appropriate to reduce costs to the government and improve customer
                        service.” However, this goal, its related objectives, and the related
                        narrative do not state specifically how progress will be measured, such as
                        the amount of savings GSA intends to achieve or the timetable for opening
                        the GSA marketplace for competition. OMB Circular A-11 specifies that
                        general goals and objectives should be stated in a manner that allows a
                        future assessment to be made of whether the goals are being met. The
                        OMB guidance states that general goals that are quantitative facilitate this
                        determination, but it also recognizes that the goals need not be
                        quantitative and that related performance goals can be used as a basis for
                        future assessments. However, we observed that many of the performance
                        goals that GSA included in the plan also were not expressed in terms that
                        could easily enable quantitative analysis, which could make gauging
                        progress difficult in future assessments.

                        The strategies component—how the goals and objectives will be
                        achieved—described the operational processes, human resources and
                        skills, and information and technology needed to meet the general goals
                        and objectives. This component is an improvement over the prior version
                        we reviewed, and applicable performance goals are listed with each of
                        these factors. Although GSA chose to discuss generally the factors that
                        will affect its ability to achieve its performance goals, we believe that a
                        more detailed discussion of how each goal will actually be accomplished
                        would be more useful to decisionmakers. To illustrate with a specific
                        example, the plan could discuss the approaches that GSA will use to meet
                        the performance goals related to its general goal of promoting responsible
                        asset management using operational processes, human resources and
                        skills, information and technology, and capital/other resources.

                        The plan does discuss, in the general goals and objectives component, an
                        operational/human resource change involving the appointment of a new
                        Chief Measurement Officer in the Public Buildings Service. More
                        discussion of this type of change in the strategies component would help
                        stakeholders better understand GSA’s specific strategies to ensure that it



                        Page 6                                                       GAO/T-GGD-98-14
Statement
The Results Act: Observations on GSA’s
Strategic Plan




is achieving its goals and objectives. We also noted that the strategies
component does not discuss priorities among the goals and objectives.
Such a discussion would be helpful to decisionmakers in determining
where to focus priorities in the event of a sudden change in funding or
staffing. Finally, GSA deferred to the President’s budget its discussion
about capital and other resources. We believe it seems reasonable to
include in this component at least some general discussion of how capital
and other resources will be used to meet each general goal.

Although the external factors component in the September 30 plan is
much clearer and provides more context than the draft version we
reviewed, the factors are not clearly linked to the general goals and
objectives. OMB Circular A-11 states that the plan should include this link,
as well as describe how achieving the goals could be affected by the
factors. This improvement would allow decisionmakers to better
understand how the factors potentially will affect achievement of each
general goal and objective. The program evaluations component in the
September 30 plan provides a listing of the various program evaluations
that GSA indicates were used in developing the plan. However, it still does
not include a schedule of future evaluations. Instead, the plan states that
the schedule for future program evaluations is under development and
that GSA intends to use the remainder of the consultation process to
obtain input from Congress and stakeholders concerning the issues that
should be studied on a priority basis. However, OMB Circular A-11
indicates that the schedule should have been completed and included in
the September 30 plan, together with an outline of the general
methodology to be used and a discussion of the particular issues to be
addressed.

Although the plan does a much better job of setting forth GSA’s statutory
authorities in the attachment, this description could be further improved if
the different statutory authorities discussed therein were linked with
either the general goals and objectives or the performance goals included
in the plan. Further, the plan only makes limited reference to the other
important areas we identified in our July 1997 report—crosscutting issues,
major management problems, and data reliability. The plan’s improved
clarity and context should help decisionmakers understand the
crosscutting issues that affect GSA as a central management agency.
However, explicit discussion of these issues is limited, and the
September 30 plan makes no reference to the extent to which GSA
coordinated with stakeholders.




Page 7                                                       GAO/T-GGD-98-14
           Statement
           The Results Act: Observations on GSA’s
           Strategic Plan




           The September 30 plan references major management problems in the
           program evaluations component, but it does not explicitly discuss these
           problems or identify which problems could have an adverse impact on
           meeting the general goals and objectives. Our work has shown over the
           years that these types of problems have significantly hampered GSA’s and
           its stakeholder agencies’ abilities to accomplish their missions. For
           example, the plan could address how GSA will attempt to ensure that its
           information systems meet computer security requirements or how GSA
           plans to address the year 2000 problem in its computer hardware and
           software systems. The plan does reference data reliability in the general
           goals and objectives component. However, the discussion of data
           reliability, which is so critical for measuring progress and results, is
           limited and not as useful as it could be in attempting to assess the impact
           that data problems could have on meeting the general goals and
           objectives. We continue to believe that greater emphasis on how GSA
           plans to resolve management problems and on the importance of data
           reliability could improve the plan.


           Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. I would be pleased
           to answer any questions.




(240276)   Page 8                                                       GAO/T-GGD-98-14
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