Press Release

January 21, 2004
For immediate release

‘Father of GPRA’ Develops Scorecard to Measure Congressional Committees

A former committee counsel to the Senate oversight committee and creator of the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) has developed a scorecard for evaluating the performance accountability of congressional committees (see

Designed by John Mercer, who was Republican Counsel to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee from 1989 to 1997, the scorecard is aimed at promoting more frequent and effective congressional oversight of federal agency performance.

“I call it the Congressional Oversight of Management and Performance Accountability Scorecard, or COMPAS,” said Mercer, “because it is primarily intended to help guide congressional committees to better general oversight of federal agencies. The points on this ‘compass’ should help steer them in the right direction. However, it can also be used by any group interested in congressional accountability for evaluating and rating the committees of Congress on how they are doing in exercising their fiduciary oversight of federal spending.”

Mercer stated he believes there is real value in the scorecard approach. “When the House leadership conducted reviews of the first agency strategic plans in 1997 and annual performance plans in 1998, and then gave out scores and letter grades, it really got everyone’s attention,” he said. “From that point forward, agencies worked much harder to improve their plans and reports and become more accountable for performance. The evaluations, scores and rankings given annually by the Mercatus Center to the annual Accountability Reports has had a similar effect. It is motivating improvements. And now we have the President’s Management Agenda scorecard of agency compliance, as well as OMB’s Program Assessment Rating Tool, which gives scores and ratings for program effectiveness and accountability. Federal agencies are definitely responding in a positive way to these rankings and ratings.”

“Simply stated,” Mercer said, “scorecards work. They may over-simplify some things a bit, but they do get press, which motivates attention and effort to improve. I am hoping that some organization or think tank, or perhaps even a university graduate program, will apply the COMPAS or some similar evaluation and scoring methodology to congressional committees. The agencies are receiving plenty of ‘scoring’ on their efforts at accountability for program performance. Now I think it’s Congress’s turn to be scored on its contribution to performance accountability, and the COMPAS is a non-partisan, non-ideological tool for doing this.”

The COMPAS contains twelve issues that an agency oversight hearing should cover, with points assigned based on whether questions were asked at the hearing that relate to the subject. The issues are assigned various weights, with more points given for questions by a committee chairman than by other members. Under each issue, more specific guidance is suggested by Mercer on what questions could be asked. A letter grade may be awarded for the hearing, based on the total points earned out of a possible 100. In addition, the COMPAS provides guidance on how to give an overall grade to the committee for its general oversight of performance and accountability by all of the agencies within its jurisdiction. “I believe it is reasonable for a committee and its subcommittees to cover their full range of jurisdiction with effective oversight hearings over a 4-year period, so that’s how the COMPAS is structured,” said Mercer.

Some examples of issues raised by the COMPAS include examination of an agency’s long-term strategic plan goals, its annual performance goals and past results, the effectiveness of its strategies for reaching its performance targets, its linkage of budget amounts to the achievement of specific goals, its processes for ensuring the accountability of program managers, the quality of its performance data and financial systems, and major concerns raised in GAO and Inspector General reports.

During his eight years as Republican Counsel to the Governmental Affairs Committee, Mercer had primary responsibility for oversight of federal agency management, effectiveness and accountability, and he played a key role in drafting several laws aimed at improving those efforts. However, he is primarily known for having proposed the idea for and leading the development of the Government Performance and Results Act., which is why former House Majority Leader Richard Armey and others have referred to Mercer as “the father of GPRA.”

“I spent 13 years working in the Congress, on both the House and Senate sides, with most of that time spent almost exclusively on general oversight issues. I am acutely aware of how little really good oversight is conducted by most congressional committees,” Mercer stated. “Much of the work we did in the Governmental Affairs Committee during the 1990’s resulted in giving the authorization and appropriations committees some powerful statutory tools for examining the effectiveness and accountability of federal agencies and their programs. And now the Bush Administration has taken even more steps toward improving agency accountability with its Program Assessment Rating Tool and a scorecard on agency management reforms. Unfortunately, few congressional committees are taking advantage of all this added transparency in program operations.”

“A regrettable bi-product of this inattention is that many agency officials believe that Congress doesn’t really care much about program performance,” said Mercer. “I hear all the time from program managers that their authorizers and appropriators don’t even look at their agency’s performance plans and reports, much less use or critique them. I must admit, I don’t understand why every member of Congress wouldn’t want to closely examine the performance plans of agency’s they care about, especially now that the plans are being integrated with the budgets,” he said, “or why they don’t find the performance reports required reading. To me, that would be like members of the board of directors of a corporation not reading its annual reports, while trying to convince the stockholders that they really are minding the store and safeguarding stockholder interests.”

Mercer explained that, in his opinion, the poor oversight problem is two-fold. “First of all, there is not enough general oversight of how well agencies are functioning and how accountable they are to the taxpayers for the money they spend,” he said. “Even the leaders of both houses of Congress have recognized this as a real concern. This problem exists largely because these types of hearing are not viewed as headline-makers. So any so-called ‘oversight’ that is conducted tends to focus mainly on a specific scandal within a particular program, because that’s what generates immediate news. But even if your sole motivation is headline hunting, you should know that a good, effective oversight hearing will often uncover several specific issues that are ripe for more in-depth and newsworthy examination in follow-on hearings.”

“One big disadvantage of this ‘scandal-mongering’ image of congressional oversight is that members of Congress often think that they should only conduct thorough oversight of agencies when those agencies are controlled by the other political party. Or they don’t want to conduct oversight that involves a program they support,” Mercer explained. “However, good oversight can show what really is working well, what could be improved with some legislative tinkering, how a shift of resources within a program could boost results, and many other useful things that even a program or Administration’s biggest champions ought to want to know. I’ve never seen a federal agency or program that couldn’t be improved in some way.”

Mercer said that the second part of the oversight problem relates to the types of questions that are asked. “At most oversight hearings, the questions of many committee members tend to be too narrowly focused on some pet peeve or constituency issue or a specific policy idea. These are certainly legitimate issues to raise, but too often they seem to predominate. Frankly, most members of Congress generally don’t know what questions to ask an agency in order to make a meaningful contribution to real oversight of its operations. That’s unfortunate, but true from what I have seen. My hope is that the COMPAS can help point them in the right direction.”

“My advice to committee chairmen is that if you start the Congress with a solid, thorough set of general oversight hearings on agencies under your jurisdiction, you will uncover a lot of issues that will give you a full agenda for news-making over the next two years, including ideas for legislative reforms. It’s really a two-step process, and if you do it right, you will serve the interests of both good government and smart politics.”

John Mercer is an independent management consultant to federal agencies and foreign governments. Last year he published a 33-page how-to guide on governmental performance budgeting.