Performance Accountability, Evidence, And Improvement

Reflections and Recommendations to the Next Administration

This bipartisan working paper authored by former senior U.S. Office of Management and Budget officials Dr. Shelley H. Metzenbaum and Robert J. Shea outlines six practices that should be used at all levels of government to improve effectiveness, as well as five recommendations to the incoming presidential administration for building on established successes in government.

Metzenbaum and Shea unveiled the paper at a forum in Washington, DC on October 5, 2016 hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration and the Volcker Alliance. They were joined by Seth Harris, former deputy secretary of the US Department of Labor; Ted McCann, assistant to the Speaker of the House for policy; and Sharon Kershbaum, chief operating officer of Washington, DC’s Department of Human Services and former deputy assistant secretary for management and budget at the US Department of the Treasury.

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Government can and should benefit people’s lives. About this, we hope there is little debate.

The question is: does it? Does government advance the beneficial impacts it pursues and does it do so with minimal unwanted side effects? Beyond that, does it do so in ways that are not only effective but also efficient, fair, understandable, reasonably predictable, courteous, honest, and trusted? Moreover, does it apply the lessons of experience to find ways to improve?

Every government organization should strive to be effective and improve, continually, on multiple dimensions. These dimensions might include, for example, mission-focused outcomes, cost-effectiveness and efficiency, quality of experience interacting with government, fairness, and unwanted side effects.

Toward that end, government should employ a common set of practices that, when used wisely, work remarkably well: (1) setting outcomes-focused goals; (2) collecting and analyzing performance data; (3) running frequent data-rich reviews to identify what works and what needs attention; (4) complementing routinely collected data with independent, rigorous evaluations and other studies; and (5) using effective communication strategies for a wide variety of purposes aimed at a wide variety of stakeholders. Common sense, backed by a robust body of evidence, calls for widespread government adoption of these performance improvement and evidence-based management practices. Failure to use these five practices leads to aimless operations. It leaves government and its partners carrying out activities they hope will work without knowing whether they, in fact, do. Moreover, it lacks the means to inform and encourage continual improvement once effective practices are identified.

Consider the alternative: government unclear about what it wants to accomplish; lacking objective means to gauge progress; failing to look for increasingly effective practices and emerging problems; introducing new programs, practices, and technologies without assessing whether they work better than past ones; and failing to communicate government’s priorities, strategies, progress, problems, and trade-offs in easy-to-find, easy-to-understand ways.

At the same time, experience and research make clear that unless government pairs these five practices with effective motivational mechanisms that encourage their thoughtful adoption, they can lead to a culture of compliance, fear, or even worse, falsification. Government therefore needs to embrace a sixth practice: (6) adopting carefully structured, evidence-based motivational mechanisms that encourage a culture of learning and experimentation. Government often seeks to link measures to monetary or other kinds of incentives, but experience suggests leaders should use great caution when embracing pay-for-performance regimes. They often backfire by triggering dysfunctional responses such as measurement manipulation and adoption of timid targets that impede discovery and innovation and undermine trust.

Download the Full Paper Here