Rethinking government oversight

(Photo: Jackelberry)


Compliance should be reframed to rely more on evidence; decision making based on evidence will allow agency leaders to use data to determine if programs are performing, and if not, whether additional resources are needed or can be put to better use says Dan Blair

Dan Blair

Americans widely wish to see their federal government perform better. How best to accomplish this goal has remained elusive for many agencies and programs. Through oversight, Congress and the executive branch are ultimately responsible for ensuring effective government performance and making continuous improvements. However, federal managers and leaders are often hamstrung by a culture and system of oversight that focuses mainly on compliance, ensuring every “i” is dotted, every “t” is crossed, and every activity accounted for, and very little on performance and outcomes. It is clearly now time to rethink government oversight.

The public is most aware of oversight activities by Congress. Hearings can expose waste, fraud, and abuse in departments and agencies, but they tend to occur after the program or policy in question has already failed. Ideally, oversight mechanisms would be part of an integrated system, providing routine opportunities for course correction, and prevent these failures from happening in the first place. The oversight framework, an accumulation of thousands of rules, statutes, guidelines, and regulations, forces departments and agencies to dedicate most of their time showing funds are being spent properly and laws are followed exactly, yet this system falls short in helping the government to deliver better results.

Modernizing this complex and politically sensitive oversight process would put the departments and agencies on track to focusing on their missions and performance, while ensuring effective compliance and oversight. A recent report from a task force of former top government management experts at the Bipartisan Policy Center proposes such a path. A rebalancing of compliance with missions and performance is necessary to help identify issues before taxpayer dollars are wasted. Agencies have limited resources to devote to compliance activities.

The agency program managers bear the brunt of the compliance burden since they are often tasked with responding to multiple reporting requests and performing activities while still being responsible for the success of their programs. These requests are often unfunded and force program managers to pick and choose from competing priorities. This results in diminished agency capacity to focus on outcomes.

Continuity in agency leadership committed to improving performance could help address the lack of trust that exists between agency heads, the workforce, and the public. Agency leaders should set a tone of trust from the top by regularly incentivizing employees who take a risk balanced approach to achieving operational, compliance, and reporting objectives. To avoid adding to the extensive compliance burden in their agencies, federal leaders should also seek to address any incidents of improper behavior by identifying the root cause before establishing new policies.

Compliance should be reframed to rely more on evidence. Decision making based on evidence will allow agency leaders to use data to determine if programs are performing, and if not, whether additional resources are needed or can be put to better use. By collecting robust measurements of results, risk data and performance data could be conjoined to create comprehensive and smart compliance policies.

Agency and program performance could also be improved through a more constructive engagement between internal and external oversight entities. Oversight bodies should look at those programs as a whole, rather than in their traditional manner. Government performance could improve if oversight bodies shared data among programs and looked at how federal programs performed across regions and geographically.

Oversight based on compliance can catch the bad guys, but the harm has already been done by the time Congress or other federal watchdogs have stepped in. Imagine nipping problems in the bud so they do not morph into a headline about the government losing billions of dollars or criminal activity running amok. Developing a more holistic path toward a better balance of compliance with mission performance and employing an approach based on risk to evaluate where attention is necessary can improve and streamline current government practices in Washington.

Dan Blair is a senior counselor and fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He led the National Academy of Public Administration and was deputy director and acting director of the Office of Personnel Management.

Note: originally published at; re-published with permission.