The Irony Never Stops on Pennsylvania Avenue

Tuesday, November 20, 2007 at 09:30 PM

What else would you expect from our current administration, renowned for its incompetence and its corruption, but a strange Executive Order creating a broad "Performance Improvement Council," along with a "Performance Improvement Officer" for every federal agency?

It didn't get a whole lot of attention, but the President issued Exec. Order 13450 on Nov. 13. The title of the Exec. Order is "Improving Government Program Performance." Yes, an order of that title, issued by the administration that brought you the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the missing billions of dollars in Iraq, the Interior Department Store, and the endless meddling of apparatchiks in matters of science, sociology, and common sense.

In short, the Order requires federal agency heads to set clear annual goals, devise specific plans for achieving those goals, and designate "performance improvement officers" (PIOs) to assess progress. It also requires that PIOs be a "member of the Senior Executive Service or equivalent service." And it requires the creation of a Performance Improvement Council (PIC) to "consist exclusively of" the OMB Deputy Director for Management (currently Bush's longtime pal Clay Johnson), serving as Chair, and:

(ii) such agency Performance Improvement Officers, as determined by the Chair; and

(iii) such other full-time or permanent part-time employees of an agency, as determined by the Chair with the concurrence of the head of the agency concerned.

Is it just me, or does this sound like the grand opening of Apparatchiks'R'Us?

Apart from the deep irony of this administration trying to lay claim to an interest in efficient and competent government, there's the fact that, as as pointed out in a comment to an online rreport on the new Order:

People at the SES level [from which PIOs must be drawn] are usually not qualified other than "people skills" --"smilies" ie, (relationship managers)... Selectees would not likely have any Quality management credentials such as Six Sigma Black Belts, appropriate academic degrees, engineering/mathematics or stat background... This is how they get "excellence" as a measure of performance!...
Other reasons to wonder about this odd new order include:
  • The goal setting and monitoring tasks essentially duplicate those already imposed by an existing federal law, the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA)
  • It requires the use of the administration's controversial Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), which "Oftentimes...decreases the efficiency and effectiveness of government through increased administrative burdens, distracted managers and compliance costs"
  • It raises a real possibility that the severe limitations of PART will be exacerbated by appointing agency representatives who oversee all performance evaluation and who report directly to the head of the agency and high-level OMB staff, but who will likely have little to no experience with specific programs they are supposed to be evaluating
  • While the Order states the program improvement officers are responsible to agency heads, the structure of the Performance Improvement Council cuts out agency heads and "has the potential to be the conduit for infusion of political directives and biases into program operations"
As for that irony.....the Order was issued November 13, exactly one week after Time magazine ran the piece Federal Watchdogs Under Fire, detailing the long struggle between the Executive Branch and the position of Inspector General within the various fed agencies. This article had this to say about the Bush administration and the IGs:
As a critical means of congressional oversight, IGs have never been particularly popular with the executive branch. Virtually every federal agency testified against the draft IG Act legislation, with the Justice Department arguing it constitutionally violated the separation of powers. Two years later the Reagan Administration tried to eliminate the system altogether, and since then all administrations have tried gaming the system to avoid embarrassments.

But the system has become so dysfunctional in recent years that Congress is trying to give it added protections. New legislation to buttress IG independence easily passed the House in October and is expected to pass the Senate in November, although the President has already threatened a veto. The bill would make each IG appointment a fixed seven-year term, which is renewable, and would allow dismissal only for cause. IG budget requests would also have to be submitted to Congress, an important provision in light of the fact that some IGs have actually shrunk their staff. Unfortunately these kind of safeguards would come too late to address the critical nomination process. Nominees need to be better vetted, perhaps by a panel process or by the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO), Light suggests, before they ever appear before the Senate. They also probably need better oversight while they are in office. Even in extraordinary situations — such as when an Integrity Committee headed by a senior FBI official recommended the dismissal of NASA's IG Robert Cobb because he had alerted the NASA administrator to audits and FBI search warrants, and allowed him to try to direct IG investigations — there is nothing forcing the agency director or President to remove the IG.

The Bush Administration, not surprisingly, rejects the notion that it has somehow corrupted the system. Says Clay Johnson, Deputy Director of Management for the Office of Management and Budget and Chairman of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, which oversees all government IGs: "By almost all accounts, this Administration has done more to improve government effectiveness than any previous Administration, ever."

Being an IG is no easy task — some liken the job to straddling barbed wire, or to being a skunk at a garden party. The IG must maintain a good working relationship with the agency director but at the same time maintain independence. At the CIA, for instance, there is always tension when headquarters staff investigate field operatives, who often complain that the Langley suits don't understand field conditions, says Frederick Hitz, CIA IG from 1990 1998 and now a lecturer in public and international affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. "That accusation is leveled at every IG; I got it in spades," he recalls, even though he began his career in the clandestine branch, running spies in West Africa.

So it's "yes" to PIOs and a PIC, with performance oversight assigned to bureaucrats unlikely to be familiar with the real tasks of a given agency, but "nay" to independent Inspectors to oversee the ethics and competence of the very same agencies.

Is there a reason I have an uneasy feeling that the new Exec. Order just might be a back door salvo in the war to get rid of IGs?


Could be worse, but then, we'd need a Bureau Of Silly Walks.....