The George W. Bush administration expended significant resources to conduct systematic evaluations of all federal government programs. The primary goal of this initiative was to generate performance information that policymakers and agency managers could use to promote the effectiveness and efficiency of government programs. But a new study suggests that political ideology might have gotten in the way of realizing this goal, in spite of the Administration’s efforts to keep politics out of the evaluation process.
The study, by Dr. Stéphane Lavertu (The Ohio State University’s John Glenn School of Public Affairs) and Dr. Donald P. Moynihan (University of Wisconsin’s La Follette School of Public Affairs) is the first to examine whether ideological factors affected the Bush administration’s success in promoting the use of program performance information in agency decision-making.
“This study deals with a fundamental issue: how politics interacts with administrative reform,” said Lavertu. “A central purpose of the Bush Administration’s initiative was to make sure that management decisions are based on hard data about program performance. What this study has uncovered is that politics may have gotten in the way of realizing this goal.”
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) conducted the program evaluations from 2003 through 2008 using the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), a carefully developed questionnaire touching on various dimensions of program management and performance. The OMB systematically graded nearly all federal programs on an ineffective-to-effective scale across four dimensions (program purpose and design, strategic planning, program management, and program results/accountability). Evaluating programs using the rating tool was a labor-intensive process conducted by OMB budget examiners in cooperation with agency managers.
Using data from a survey of federal agency managers administered by the Government Accountability Office, Lavertu and Moynihan examined how the involvement of agency managers in the PART evaluation process related to agency managers’ use of performance information in managing their programs, paying particular attention to differences across agencies associated with liberal, moderate, and conservative ideologies.
The Department of Education, Department of Labor, and the Environmental Protection Agency are some of the agencies categorized as liberal. Agencies such as NASA, the Forest Service, and Veteran Affairs are considered moderate, and agencies such as the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security are considered conservative.
The results indicate that agency managers’ involvement with the PART evaluation process is associated with greater managerial information use in conservative and, to a lesser extent, moderate agencies, but managerial involvement in the PART evaluation process is not associated with heightened information use in agencies whose programs and constituencies are associated with a liberal ideology.
There are a number of reasons why agency ideology might influence managers’ willingness to use performance information in their decision-making. For example, managers who share a president’s ideology may simply be more trusting of and receptive to any initiative that president proposes. In the case of PART, those who managed programs traditionally supported by liberal political constituencies may have believed that the evaluations were politically biased and that they did not accurately reflect the performance of their programs, which might have led them to ignore performance information when making programmatic decisions.
The OMB under President Bush made a significant effort to implement a non-partisan initiative to improve how government manages its programs. But it appears that political dynamics may have undermined this goal nonetheless. Perhaps managers in liberal agencies were no more inclined to use performance information after the Bush-era initiative because they were biased against the performance information produced. Or perhaps the performance evaluations under OMB to some extent sought to undermine the goals of liberal programs and, thus, were of less help to managers in liberal agencies. Whatever the precise explanation, it appears political dynamics had an impact.
“Prior to this study there had been no studies that examined how ideological tensions—that is, differences in ideological leanings between political executives and agencies—affect performance information use,” said Lavertu. “The findings illustrate how politics may infiltrate ostensibly non-partisan, ‘good government’ reforms, even when significant steps are taken to keep politics out.”