“This is my last election,” President Barack Obama famously told Russia’s outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev in March, in a conversation inadvertently caught on a “hot” microphone. “After my election, I have more flexibility.”
Obama was talking foreign policy, but it’s intriguing to contemplate what the President’s second-term “flexibility” will mean for his performance-based budgeting agenda and for the federal workforce in general.
To be sure, a second-term Obama White House will continue to battle conservatives in Congress, who may continue to be entirely inflexible about their refusal to entertain revenue increases as part of a balanced approach to long-term deficit reform. And though budgets are already tight, any resolution to our fiscal challenges may entail further spending cuts in the short term. It won’t be easy for the White House to persuade Congress to approach any new cuts “with a scalpel, not with a hatchet,” as Obama has long preferred.
Whatever the outcome of those fights, federal workers have a responsibility to help political leaders make smarter budgeting decisions. To that end, lawmakers need to know which programs are most effective, and which are least effective. And there will continue to be an urgent need to deploy what evidence there is on program effectiveness to inform budget decisions.
Using performance data to drive budget decisions
A Obama second term is an opportunity, then, to improve the longer-term trend in Washington of using performance data to drive budget decisions. This administration has already demonstrated its commitment to better use of evidence and a stronger focus on outcomes in budget decisions. Programs such as the Investing in Innovation fund run by the Education Department direct funds toward approaches backed by evidence. And the Race to the Top program is clearly aimed at delivering transformations in educational outcomes.
The majority of federal programs, however, don’t direct funds to approaches that have proved to work, and there is often much more focus on inputs or outputs than on outcomes.
Block grant programs in particular release money to states with few requirements that funds be directed to evidence based approaches, or that particular outcomes are achieved. A second-term administration might try to address these issues across a range of program areas, pushing harder for funding decisions to be guided by outcomes and evidence of what works.
Performance-based budget reform has gone in and out of vogue in Washington for decades and is today met with some skepticism by veteran staffers, according to a recent study by the Center for American Progress.
“We were stunned by the almost universal negativity with which [such] efforts were viewed by the budget professionals we interviewed in both the executive and legislative branches,” wrote Senior Fellow Scott Lilly and former Defense Department inspector general Eleanor Hill in the August report, “Broken Budgeting: A View of Federal Budget Making from the Trenches.”
Among the complaints are that such initiatives can drown budget professionals in paperwork that obscures, rather than helps, get useful information to the decision-makers.
Overcoming that obstacle will require a further transformation in government culture. A chief concern voiced by veteran budget professionals has been the development of a top-down management culture, in which senior political officials use the performance-based process to justify decisions already made at a centralized level.
Turnover in political leadership
The start of a second term, in which there’s significant turnover in political leadership, is an opportunity to increase trust between new political leaders and senior career staff.
A government that concentrates too much power at the top risks losing the talent and productivity of people distributed throughout agencies.
To their credit, Obama administration officials have repeatedly acknowledged the importance of tapping more fully the creativity and expertise embedded within the government.
A second term offers an opportunity to make additional progress on this front, to empower civil servants to be brutally honest about what’s working in government and what’s not, and to encourage decision-making guided by the people with the most expertise.
Likewise, civil servants should ensure they quickly understand the priorities of new political leaders and demonstrate their commitment early on to making management-reform improvements a reality.
Whoever wins the election, federal workers should be prepared for significant change.
Budgets will get squeezed, and a new cadre of political leaders will come in with a new set of high expectations. If Obama wins, his second term administration will likely double down on its focus on outcomes — both in the way government distributes funding and in the way that agencies are held to account.
A committed focus to evidence-based decisions and increased accountability has the potential not only to enhance the taxpayer’s return on investment, but also enhance public trust in public servants. That’s worth fighting for.
Gadi Dechter is the managing director for economic policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
More from the special report, The Obama Impact: Evaluating the Last Four Years
Francis Rose is the host of In Depth, which airs weekdays from 4-7 p.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC metro area and online everywhere. Francis has covered all three branches of the federal government as a broadcast journalist since 1998. He joined Federal News Radio in 2006, and launched In Depth in 2008 as a daily show focused on connecting federal executives to the information they need to do their jobs better.