Results Act: Observations on USDA's Draft Strategic Plan

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-10-01.

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

                   United States General Accounting Office

GAO                Testimony
                   Before the Subcommittee on Departmental Operations,
                   Committee on Agriculture, House of Representatives

For Release
on Delivery
Expected at
                   RESULTS ACT
10 a.m. EDT
October 1, 1997
                   Observations on USDA’s
                   Draft Strategic Plan
                   Statement of Robert A. Robinson,
                   Director, Food and Agriculture Issues,
                   Resources, Community, and Economic
                   Development Division

                 Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

                 We are pleased to be here today to discuss the U. S. Department of
                 Agriculture’s (USDA) draft strategic plan required by the Government
                 Performance and Results Act of 1993 (Results Act). Our testimony is based
                 primarily on our July 1997 review of USDA’s May 1997 draft strategic plan,1
                 and our observations on the August 1997 revised draft plan, which we
                 recently obtained from USDA. Our testimony does not reflect any
                 subsequent changes that may have been made and included in the final
                 plan that USDA submitted to the Congress on September 30, 1997.

                 In summary, our July 1997 report stated that a significant amount of work
                 remained to be done before USDA’s plan fulfilled the requirements of the
                 Results Act. Specifically we found that USDA’s May 1997 draft strategic plan
                 did not

             •   contain all six elements required by the Results Act; and
             •   provide a comprehensive strategy to accomplish the Department’s mission
                 because it lacked some key attributes that are necessary for a quality
                 strategic plan.

                 Our review of the August revised draft strategic plan indicates that while
                 USDA has made significant progress in addressing these concerns there
                 remains a need for additional work in some areas.

                 With an operating budget of about $57 billion, USDA is one of the largest
Background       civilian agencies in government. USDA administers over 200 programs that
                 cover a wide range of issues related to food and agriculture. Among other
                 things, USDA’s programs support farmers’ incomes, stabilize domestic
                 markets, promote U.S. exports, manage national forests, conserve
                 agricultural lands, provide access to food for low-income households,
                 improve the nutritional status of the American people, ensure a safe food
                 supply, and support research for the development of new agricultural
                 products and processes. The programs are administered by 18 agencies in
                 seven mission areas.

                 The diverse nature of USDA’s programs raises several challenges in
                 developing a comprehensive strategic plan that adequately addresses all
                 the responsibilities falling under the Department’s purview. To best
                 address the wide range of program activities and functions that support its

                  Results Act: Observations on USDA’s Draft Strategic Plan (GAO/RCED-97-196R, July 10, 1997).

                 Page 1                                                                        GAO/T-RCED-98-17
                     mission and respond to the Results Act, USDA chose to develop a strategic
                     plan that consists of a departmentwide strategic overview accompanied by
                     30 plans for the mission areas, agencies, and staff offices that constitute
                     the Department. While the departmentwide strategic overview lays out the
                     overall mission and goals for USDA, the agency plans provide greater detail
                     on the missions and the goals of the individual agencies that make up the

                     For our July 1997 report, we reviewed the departmentwide strategic
                     overview and the 16 agency plans that are directly related to
                     accomplishing USDA’s mission and implementing its programs. These 16
                     agency plans cover USDA’s seven primary mission areas: Farm and Foreign
                     Agricultural Services; Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services; Food
                     Safety; Marketing and Regulatory Programs; Natural Resources and
                     Environment; Research, Education, and Economics; and Rural

                     USDA’s May 1997 draft plan did not contain all six elements required by the
USDA’s May 1997      Results Act. The six critical components required by the act are (1) a
Draft Plan Did Not   comprehensive mission statement; (2) agencywide long-term goals and
Contain All the      objectives for all major functions and operations; (3) approaches (or
                     strategies) and the various resources needed to achieve the goals and
Required Elements    objectives; (4) a relationship between the long-term goals and objectives
                     and the annual performance goals; (5) an identification of key factors,
                     which are external to the agency and beyond its control, that could
                     significantly affect the achievement of the strategic goals; and (6) a
                     description of how program evaluations were used to establish or revise
                     strategic goals and a schedule for future program evaluations.

                     We found that the departmentwide strategic overview only provided a
                     mission statement for USDA as a whole and laid out four general goals and
                     their related subgoals. The overview referred readers to the agencies’
                     plans for detailed information on all six required elements of the Results
                     Act. However, our review of the 16 agencies’ plans found that they were
                     generally incomplete and, except for the plan of the Food and Consumer
                     Service, none of them contained all six key elements required by the
                     Results Act. While all of the 15 incomplete plans contained a mission
                     statement and goals and objectives, the information provided for the other
                     four key elements varied significantly. Specifically, for these 15 agency
                     plans we found that

                     Page 2                                                      GAO/T-RCED-98-17
•   7 did not provide information on the resources needed to achieve the
    agencies’ goals and objectives;
•   none provided sufficient information on the relationship between an
    agency’s long-term goals and annual performance goals; most plans
    indicated that this information was being developed;
•   7 did not provide information on the external factors that were beyond the
    control of the agency and that could affect the achievement of its goals;
•   13 plans alluded to the fact that program evaluations might be used to
    modify goals and objectives in the future, but none described the general
    scope and methodology for the evaluations, the key issues that would be
    addressed during the evaluations, or the timing of the evaluations.

    We also found that while many of the agencies’ plans included sections
    that should have covered information on the required elements, the
    information actually provided was incomplete and often not relevant or
    directly linked to the goals and objectives stated in that agency’s plan. As
    we have discussed with USDA officials, merely having a subheading for a
    required element does not satisfy the requirements of the Results Act. For
    example, almost all of the 16 agency plans included a section that
    discussed the external environment facing the agency, but only about half
    of the plans provided any indication of how these external factors could
    affect the agency’s ability to accomplish specific goals and objectives.
    Because external factors can influence the achievement of a goal directly
    and significantly, not including a discussion of these factors could
    invalidate the assumptions underlying a goal. Similarly, providing a
    schedule of future program evaluations is important not because it is
    required but because without these evaluations an agency cannot have the
    confidence that it has set the right goals and that its strategies will be
    effective in achieving them.

    Our review of USDA’s August draft strategic plan found significant
    improvements in two of the four required elements. All of the agencies’
    plans included sections describing the (1) resources needed to accomplish
    the stated goals and (2) key external factors that could affect the
    achievement of their goals and objectives. However, the agencies’ plans
    continued to lack sufficient information on the relationship between the
    long-term goals and annual performance goals as well as program
    evaluations that will be used in the future to ensure that those goals and
    objectives are being achieved. We found that although all the agencies’
    plans had subheadings to address these two requirements, the information
    provided in about half of them continues to be inadequate.

    Page 3                                                      GAO/T-RCED-98-17
                        Collectively, USDA’s May 1997 departmentwide overview and the agencies’
Key Attributes          plans did not provide a comprehensive strategy for carrying out the
Necessary for a         Department’s mission or achieving the purposes of the Results Act (such
Quality Plan Were       as improving management, program effectiveness, and public
                        accountability and confidence) because some key attributes were missing.
Missing                 Many of the attributes necessary for a quality strategic plan are described
                        in the Office of Management and Budget’s Circular A-11, Part 2. We found
                        that the attributes missing from USDA’s May 1997 plan included the

                    •   As we just stated, many agency plans were incomplete. Until all the plans
                        are completed, they cannot provide an overall guide to help the agencies
                        set priorities and allocate resources consistent with these priorities.
                    •   Some agency plans had inadequate descriptions of the strategies that an
                        agency would use to achieve its goals and objectives. General goals and
                        objectives should elaborate how an agency will carry out its mission,
                        outline planned accomplishments, and schedule their implementation.
                        Without fully descriptive strategies, it was unclear to us how these
                        agencies would achieve their stated goals and objectives.
                    •   Some agency plans contained goals and objectives with results that
                        exceeded the agency’s span of influence. In these cases, achieving the
                        performance goal often depended on several external factors, some of
                        which may be more significant than the agency’s functions and programs.
                        As we discussed with USDA officials, at a minimum, these external factors
                        should be recognized in the agency’s plan and linked to particular goals.
                    •   Only a few agency plans included clear linkages between the agency’s
                        goals and objectives and how they contributed to USDA’s major goals. We
                        believe that these linkages are important because an agency’s goals and
                        objectives set out the long-term programmatic policy and goals of the
                        Department as a whole and are important for providing direction and
                        guidance to that agency’s staff.
                    •   Many agency plans lacked a clear emphasis on externally focused goals
                        that directly relate to the mission of the agency. While the Results Act does
                        not preclude the development of agency goals that are process-oriented,
                        we believe that formulating goals that relate to an agency’s mission are
                        important because this process provides an opportunity for the agency to
                        identify programs that are essential, as well as those that can be
                        eliminated, reduced in scope, or transferred to another agency.
                    •   Some of the goals and objectives in the agency plans were not measurable
                        and thereby may preclude a future assessment of whether the goals have
                        been or are being achieved. While the Results Act does not require
                        agencies’ goals to be stated in a quantitative fashion, we found that some

                        Page 4                                                      GAO/T-RCED-98-17
               of them were stated so broadly that they were inherently unmeasurable,
               either directly or through the use of performance measures.
           •   Many agency plans had performance measures that were either missing,
               not useful, or incomplete, thus making a comprehensive assessment of
               performance and results difficult. Although some agency plans did provide
               information on performance measures, the information was not sufficient
               to show the relationship between an agency’s strategic goals and the
               performance goals to be included in the annual performance plans.

               Our review of the August revision of USDA’s draft strategic plan found that
               it was generally better because the agency plans had been improved in
               three specific areas. First, the agency plans had a clearer focus on
               mission-related goals and objectives partly because process-oriented and
               internal goals had been separated from strategic goals. Second, the agency
               plans included better linkages between an agency’s goals and objectives
               and its authorizing legislation, as well as clearly identified how the agency
               goals contributed to the Department’s overall goals. Finally, the agency
               plans provided more detailed information on the various governmental
               and nongovernmental entities involved in accomplishing the agencies’
               goals. However, we remain concerned about the lack of complete
               information in some agency plans on the strategies that will be used to
               achieve the goals as well as the performance measures that will be used to
               gauge an agency’s progress in meeting its goals. In particular, some of the
               agency plans continue to have broadly defined objectives and incomplete
               performance measures that will preclude an assessment of an agency’s

               In conclusion, it is important to recognize that while USDA’s May 1997 draft
               strategic plan was inadequate in many respects, the Results Act
               anticipated that the process of developing an effective strategic plan may
               take several planning cycles to perfect. We are pleased to see
               improvements in USDA’s August draft strategic plan, which has
               incorporated many of the suggestions that we made during informal
               meetings with USDA officials after the issuance of our July 1997 report as
               well as suggestions that the Department received from congressional
               committees and the Office of Management and Budget. We look forward to
               continuing to work with the Congress and USDA to ensure that the
               requirements of the Results Act are met. Mr. Chairman, this concludes my
               prepared statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions that you
               or Members of the Subcommittee may have.

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