Mercatus Study Shows Shortcomings in Agencies’ Reports to Congress

Posted: May 9, 2000 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

To best serve the American people, federal agencies should meet the same reporting standards as Fortune 500 companies, according to a study released last week by the Mercatus Center. As a way to help Congress assess federal agencies’ first-ever annual performance reports, required under the Government Performance and Results Act and submitted to Congress by March 31, researchers at the Mercatus Center evaluated 24 federal agency reports and produced a scorecard rating the reports in three categories: transparency, the demonstration of value to the community, and forward-looking leadership.

“The purpose of our Scorecard project is to focus on a high level of transparency in how government agencies inform the public about their accomplishments,” says Jerry Ellig, senior research fellow and author of the report. “We found that while the agencies did an okay job of reporting their performance, most still have quite a way to go before they are truly accountable and transparent.”

For example, while the Agency for International Development presented its report in an easy-to-read format, the Department of Agriculture published more than 600 pages of technical, acronym-laden text. The Department of Commerce produced 180 pages of similar low-quality text, and included poorly designed tables that confused more than enlightened, according to the report.

The researchers also found that, in general, agencies did best at articulating results-based goals and including baseline and trend data to put performance measures into context. The three areas where the reports needed the most improvement were providing cost data, assessing reliability of their data, and demonstrating that agency actions actually made an impact on the overall agency performance.

“As long as Americans keep giving their tax dollars to the government, federal agencies should be prepared to report in a very forthright, revealing manner just how their money is being spent. We didn’t observe that openness with many of these reports,” says Maurice McTigue, director of the Public Sector Leadership program at Mercatus and a former New Zealand Cabinet Minister and member of parliament. “In the future, these agency reports should mirror standards required in the reports of Fortune 500 companies, which are compelled to report accurately and ethically to their shareholders, otherwise they could suffer serious penalties.”

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