National Partnership for Reinventing Government
Annual Performance Report Is Strategic OpportunityAgencies should take advantage of a strategic opportunity to tell their stories to Congress, other policy-makers, and the public through their annual performance reports. That was the key message at a recent workshop for annual report writers sponsored by the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR).
Under the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), federal departments and independent agencies must develop annual performance plans, including goals and objectives and the measures they will use to assess progress. They must report annually on their accomplishments, and if target levels were not met, the report must explain why not and what will be done to accomplish them in the future. The first annual performance reports are due to Congress by March 31, 2000.
In opening remarks at the workshop, Maurice McTigue, former New Zealand Cabinet Minister and Member of Parliament, said that if the GPRA annual report is approached as a strategic document, it can be used to build the agency's image and publicize the agency's achievements. Any difficult situations can be shown in the broader context of the agency's overall success. The agency can also manage risks stemming from not meeting all its goals by describing the steps it is taking to address the problem or the barriers outside the control of the agency that are impeding progress.
Echoing the need for full disclosure, representatives from Congress and GAO emphasized that the biggest mistake agencies could make would be to fail to disclose negative information. They said that a good report is one that is useful to both the Hill and the agency and also helps the Hill make decisions based on program performance.
Workshop facilitator Chris McGoff highlighted several contradictory "Right vs. Right" dilemmas that annual report writers face.
Challenges. Workshop participants raised several challenges they face in preparing the annual reports. It has been difficult to get consistent and strong leadership attention to the annual report project. Not enough resources have been given to the task, and program managers do not see its importance. There are too many people to please and there is internal second-guessing about the report's audience and message. The strategic plan itself may be out of date, and the agency is stuck with the old measures or with measures that are inappropriate. Component programs may not provide needed information, or the data is late; external organizations (e.g., states) are not required to provide information essential to telling the story. Often, the information systems are inadequate.
Participants noted that GPRA is a business process on top of a political process. There is fear that Congress will use the report to hurt the agency. There is a lack of shared accountability but agencies cannot criticize Congress. OMB may not allow them to say they had insufficient resources to meet their goals. GPRA is supposed to drive the budget, but timing of the budget process is out of synch for that purpose, at least for this round.
Opportunities. Despite these challenges, workshop participants agreed that preparing the annual report offers a unique opportunity for the agency to communicate both internally and externally. The report can be used to explain agency functions and to allocate resources. The agency can get its story out -- both successes and failures -- and put a human face on the agency's work through real-life examples. The agency leader can learn if the agency performed to its plan and to re-examine the appropriateness of the performance measures. The report forces agencies to look for the root causes of failure and provides a place to say the agency can't do everything well. Agency staff can gain a sense of accomplishment and a better understanding of where they fit in. The report can also be used to help break barriers and establish shared goals with Congress and other stakeholders. An agency can make a case for its budget by showing the results of investments in its programs and the accomplishments that can be expected by increased resources.
Tips on Preparing the Report. In discussing how to prepare the report, participants said the report should be a brief "executive story." Ideally, the report will include graphics and pictures as well as examples of how the agency helps people. Report writers should create a voice and style, and combat efforts by lawyers and bureaucrats to use anything other than plain language. The report should err on the side of disclosure, and find the good in the bad news. Report writers should talk to Congressional staff before going too far in developing the report, and stakeholders should be briefed on the report's contents before it is submitted. Finally, the report should be placed on the agency's website.
For More Information
For more information about NPR's December 9 workshop for GPRA report-writers, please send an e-mail to Donna.Fletcher@npr.gov.
Other GPRA Resources.
For more information about GPRA and performance-based government, see:
Managing for Results
GovExec.com: Agencies prepare first-ever annual reports
Balancing Measures: Best Practices in Performance Management