Improving Program Design

Executive Summary

Federal programs are often a story of good intentions gone awry. Consider, for instance, the case of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients who are also eligible for food stamps. Congress, hoping to improve service to, and participation of, those SSI beneficiaries, concluded that the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services should coordinate the delivery of food stamps at Social Security Administration (SSA) offices. Subsequently, however, the General Accounting Office (GAO) found that this design resulted in duplicated efforts and poor service.

Another flawed program design is the federal student loan program which has guaranteed $142 billion in loans, paid $35 billion in interest, and lost $19 billion in defaulted loans since 1965, yet it generates hundreds of millions of dollars in profit every year for private corporations. Poor program design also contributed to lax federal regulation of the savings and loan industry, which will cost taxpayers some $300 billion before the crisis ends. More recently, the Federal Aviation Administration struggled to keep up with rapid growth in airline service because of serious institutional constraints, prompting some experts to recommend transforming it into a government corporation.

These experiences are not isolated. Many federal programs are badly designed, ill-conceived and fatally flawed. Innumerable bureaucratic horror stories publicized by journalists, pundits, politicians, and civil servants have unfairly turned phrases like "good government" into oxymorons. [Endnote 1] GAO has identified 17 federal programs as high-risk activities especially vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.[Endnote 2] The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) currently has 104 programs on its high-risk list.[Endnote 3]

The number and severity of these problems has undermined the public's trust in government. Perhaps not since the beginning of the Great Depression have Americans shown such little confidence in Washington's ability to provide the service that the nation deserves. And, unlike Watergate, Iran-Contra, and other political scandals, the problem is not rooted in the episodic vices and failures of individuals. Instead, Americans are increasingly frustrated by the enduring deficiencies in our government's structures and processes.

Often, government problems are rooted in the poor foundations upon which public programs are built-- ambiguous goals, weak operational concepts, and careless implementation design. Now, both program design and program evaluation are enjoying heightened prominence with enactment of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993. It requires the executive branch to produce both performance plans and performance reports; these requirements should prompt agencies to foster better program designs and more rigorous program evaluations.

Federal programs come in a wide assortment. Sometimes, the federal government provides cash payments to individuals, such as with Social Security. At other times, it provides benefits only indirectly, such as when it offers tax incentives for builders to construct low-income housing. The particular method of delivery of public service (e.g., direct subsidies, tax incentives, loan guarantees, regulations, etc.) should be tailored to the specific requirements and circumstances of the constituency to be served.

To be sure, political considerations, both in the executive branch and Congress, play a major role in influencing the shape and funding of most federal programs. Nevertheless, these programs also should be rationally formulated and designed. In fact, sound designs that are based on objective criteria could yield programs that are more likely to win administrative and legislative approval.

At present, the federal government lacks any systematic, disciplined approach to program design. In designing programs, officials all too often fail to anticipate the unintended consequences. Program evaluation in OMB and many agencies is less prominent than it once was. Yet we need broadly applicable techniques for designing effective, cost-efficient programs, especially in an era of fiscal austerity. We also should apply program design technology to existing programs as part of program review, evaluation, and redesign processes. In time, the objective criteria that we develop may help us better determine what services the federal government should provide, and what we should discontinue. The following are examples of such objective criteria:

1. Identify who benefits and how they benefit.

2. Define and evaluate alternate methods of program delivery.

3. Examine program compatibility.

4. Assess cost-effectiveness and efficiency.

5. Evaluate consistency with accepted management principles.

6. Ensure financial feasibility.

7. Determine feasibility of implementation.

8. Provide for program flexibility.

9. Institute performance measurement and program evaluation.

10.Build in cessation provisions.

Whatever criteria are chosen, the federal government needs to develop a formal discipline of program design. The National Performance Review recommends four presidential initiatives.

First, the President should direct the President's Management Council to sponsor the development and publication of a comprehensive handbook that would address the strengths and weaknesses of alternative program designs. It should include a complete review of relevant literature, a compilation of existing federal programs, a discussion of different approaches, an assessment of comparative advantages, analyses of case studies, and model designs for program types.

Second, the Council should designate one or two agencies to test program design capability to determine its value and costs. For these pilot projects, agencies might create modest program design offices--staffed by individuals qualified in program design, management and evaluation--to help senior officials design new programs and assess existing ones.

Third, the Council should take steps to help Congress design better programs. It should work with the Congressional Research Service (CRS) so the CRS will include program design concepts in all of its relevant training materials. In addition, the Council should encourage CRS, GAO, the Congressional Budget Office, and key congressional staff to participate in program design training.

Fourth, the Council should commission program design courses to educate and train current and future policymakers, program designers, and managers. Such education might include short seminars, a longer residential course, the introduction of program design into existing management development programs, and offerings at graduate schools of public administration.


1. Ruby, Michael, "Rube Goldberg, R.I.P.,'' U.S. News & World Report (August 16, 1994), p. 64.

2. See U.S. General Accounting Office, Reports GAO/HR-93-1 through HR-93-17, Washington, D.C., December 1992.

3. Budget of the United States Government Fiscal Year 1994 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993), p. 107.

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