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Mark Warner: A responsible step forward

I wanted to let you know about the recent progress of legislation I have introduced that will make government work better and save taxpayer money.

The Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010, which I’m proud to say is co-sponsored by two Republicans and two Democrats, requires each federal agency to set clear performance goals – goals that can be accurately measured, and then publicly reported to the taxpayers. We also direct agencies to identify their highest and lowest priority programs.

These steps will help us identify overlapping federal programs as we work to find taxpayer savings. Finally, our bill requires the federal budget office to identify duplicative and outdated agency reporting and reduce the overall number of annual written reports by at least ten-percent. I expect our bill to be taken-up by the full Senate once Congress returns to work next month.

Too Many Stovepipes

Most of you probably know that I’ve spent more time in the business world than in government service. That’s why I have always tried to apply common-sense business practices to the core functions of government, both as Virginia’s Governor and now as a U.S. Senator.

As Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee’s Task Force on Government Performance over the past year, I have worked with a bipartisan group of senators to examine how the federal government uses data to improve its operations.

The answer, as you might expect, is — not very well: The federal government is not consistent in the data it collects. We do not use the best tools and technology to analyze outcomes. And we rarely follow-up and put the necessary accountability in place so that we improve service to the public. .

It might surprise you to learn that the taxpayers fund 44 separate programs in nine different federal departments that support workforce training. We also pay for 17 separate initiatives across seven federal departments that deal with food safety policies.

We need a better system – a system that allows us to review the results of each program and evaluate its impact in addressing overall policy goals, whether it’s the important work of retraining people who’ve lost their jobs or ensuring the safety of the food your family eats.

Data Overload

Many states, including Virginia, already are national leaders in efforts to clearly identify these policy goals. I encourage you to check out the Virginia Performs website for a great example of how Virginia tracks and reports on its program outcomes.

This priority focus on performance management is one reason why Virginia has been repeatedly designated as one of the country’s best-managed states in recent years.

In Washington, federal agencies produce thousands of pages of data every year but we don’t use it. There are bookshelves all over this town that are literally sagging from the weight of these unread reports.

We rarely compare results among competing programs, and for many programs, I’m not sure we ever actually analyze the data to see if they are achieving the intended results.

What the Bill Does

Our Government Performance and Results Modernization Act tackles many of these challenges in a smart and responsible way.

First, it requires agencies to produce real-time data on results. Federal agencies typically file a mountain of required performance reports – but only once each year. That’s not good enough. Our bill requires agencies to post priority results each quarter so we’ll have access to more timely information about what’s working – and what isn’t.

Second, the bill requires agencies to post this information on a single public website. That will allow taxpayers, agency managers and members of Congress to evaluate and compare outcomes and results – information that is critical in making informed judgments about how we are performing when it comes to national priorities such as education, health and safety.

This shift to real-time data, publicly reported on a single website, has another clear benefit. It will look across the government stovepipes and help us easily identify underperforming, overlapping and outdated federal programs.

It also will help highlight additional opportunities to save taxpayer dollars by better coordinating the “back office” functions of federal programs with similar goals and activities.

Third, we require each agency to designate a Chief Operating Officer who will be held accountable for agency results. The COO also will be responsible for aggressively pursuing potential cost-savings by clearly identifying overlap and unnecessary duplication.

Finally, our bill requires the federal budget office to identify duplicative and outdated agency reporting and reduce the number of annual written reports by ten-percent.

Responsible Step Forward

At a time of alarming federal budget deficits and diminished resources, I believe this legislation is an important and overdue step forward. It will accelerate efforts to apply proven and responsible business practices to the work of the federal government.

It is time to move beyond the debate over ‘big’ versus ‘smaller’ government. With this legislation, we will be able to focus instead on what we should be doing to provide the taxpayers with a more efficient and effective government.

Commentary by U.S. Sen. Mark Warner

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