Bush Administration Gives Bad Marks to Many Agencies

The Bush administration gave out just one "green light" for satisfactory performance in its first review of how well federal agencies work. Overall, red lights ruled.

The Pentagon got poor marks for management in the appraisals woven through President Bush's budget Monday. The review judged billion-dollar education programs to be ineffective. Public housing managers were faulted for sloppy accounting.

The Veterans Affairs Department, which runs a national network of cemeteries, was singled out for employing 11,000 people to tend lawns — and for falling short in the core missions of providing health care services and processing pension claims.

Administration officials say the ratings are a simple way to see in broad strokes how 15 large departments and 11 smaller agencies are doing. To critics, they are a simplistic gimmick colored by politics.

Bush likened the performance measures to those he has applied to schools and said they will help determine how the government spends money.

"Where government programs are succeeding, their efforts should be reinforced," Bush said. "And when objective measures reveal that government programs are not succeeding, those programs should be reinvented, redirected or retired."

A specialist in the federal civil service said the system did not appear drawn from any rigorous standards or measurement and probably will not be taken seriously by agency managers or congressional budget-writers.

"All pop and sizzle," said Paul Light, director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution. "It doesn't really matter to anything that matters."

The review judged each department in five areas: the condition of its work force, its financial management or bookkeeping, its online services, its success in bringing down costs by having public and private suppliers compete, and the degree to which it has tied its spending to results.

Of 130 ratings, 110 were red lights — meaning serious flaws were found. The Defense, Education, Treasury and Health and Human Services departments got red lights across the board.

So did some smaller agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Indeed, the Office of Management and Budget, which coordinated the review, even painted itself all red.

Nineteen yellow lights, for mixed results, were handed out.

The one green was given to the National Science Foundation for its financial performance. The foundation was credited with handling twice as many grant applications as it did a decade ago despite a smaller staff.

The review judged that the Army and Navy were doing an effective job improving housing for their families but the Air Force was not. It said a program for safe and drug-free schools has not made a measurable difference — but the program was funded anyway, at least for another year.

Officials counted several dozen other programs where the ratings were taken into account when squeezing spending, including a fossil-energy research program that would lose close to half its money under the new budget.

But, as the budget document put it, the ratings themselves are an imperfect way to measure imperfection, "and some conclusions may prove erroneous over time."

On the surface, the review was a strikingly self-critical exercise by the government. But while the Bush administration has been in office for a year, it said the poor scores reflect the state of the government it inherited from the last administration.

President Clinton, too, tried to make the bureaucracy more efficient in the "reinventing government" effort handed off to his vice president, Al Gore.

Light said that did not come to much and Bush's traffic-light appraisals probably will not, either. Each party, when in power, uses performance judgments of some sort to provide cover for cutting programs it does not like and spending more on programs it does, he said.

"The next administration will take this set of red lights and green lights and dispose of it," he said. "That's why federal agency managers and employees don't take this seriously."