Improving the Accountability of Federal Regulatory Agencies, Part II: Assessing Eight Government-wide Accountability Reforms

Washington Monument
by Marcus Peacock, Distinguished Research Professor
June 28, 2016

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Greater accountability at regulatory agencies is desirable because (1) the public has a right to know how government affects society and (2) greater accountability improves agency performance. As described in the previous Insight in this series, the United States attempted eight major government-wide initiatives to increase accountability at federal agencies, including regulatory agencies. This Insight reviews public and expert opinion, which indicate these initiatives failed to improve accountability. New proposals to improve accountability at regulatory agencies could benefit from understanding why previous efforts fell short. The next Insight in this series will examine what lessons we can learn from the failure of these eight initiatives.

Washington Wants to Improve Regulatory Accountability

The U.S. President and Congress show significant interest in improving the accountability of federal regulatory agencies in the United States. For instance, in 2011 and 2012 President Barack Obama issued three Executive Orders expanding requirements for regulatory agencies to assess the performance of existing regulations and creating a process for assessing the performance of new regulations after they are implemented.[1] Likewise, Congress has considered a number of bills that would strengthen regulatory accountability by, for instance, increasing requirements for regulatory analyses, tightening legal standards, creating a regulatory budget, and mandating the retrospective review of regulatory results.[2]

These reforms are intended to make federal regulators more accountable for their actions. Accountable regulators assess and take responsibility for the results of regulations they issue. Greater accountability in government is desirable for at least two reasons. First, many believe the public has a right to know what results their government is achieving.[3] Second, accountability leads to better performance. When an organization takes responsibility for the outcomes of its actions it is making a commitment to make the necessary changes to improve those outcomes, especially if they are found to be lacking.[4] For at least these two reasons, efforts to increase accountability for results in government have received bipartisan support.[5]

Eight Previous Accountability Reforms

In the last sixty years, the federal government implemented eight major reforms across most of its departments, including at most regulatory agencies, with the purpose of improving government accountability:[6]

  • Planning-Programming-Budgeting System (implemented in 1965)
  • Management By Objectives (1973)
  • Zero-Base Budgeting (1977)
  • The Grace Commission (1982)
  • Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) (1993)
  • The National Performance Review (NPR) (1993)
  • The Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) (2002)
  • Government Performance and Results Modernization Act (GPRAMA) (2010)

The eight reform initiatives presented above are by no means exhaustive of the changes that took place at Federal departments and agencies over the last sixty years. During this stretch of time, for instance, new officers were established in most agencies to improve accountability including the Inspectors General (in 1978), Chief Financial Officers (1990), and Performance Improvement Officers (2007). In addition, presidents launched other initiatives including President H.W. Bush’s Total Quality Management effort and President John Kennedy’s Manpower Control and Utilization directive. Yet the eight modern initiatives listed above represent the most complete and concerted attempts to implement one or more key elements of a sustainable accountability system: a system that regularly collects and uses information on estimated or actual outcomes in order to improve public awareness and/or agency performance.

Some of these eight initiatives attempted to improve accountability by requiring managers to justify continued funding for their programs based on expected results (such as Zero-Base Budgeting). Others compared or rated programs to a set of standards (such as the Program Assessment Rating Tool). Finally, others simply compelled the identification, collection and public release of outcome data (such as the Government Performance and Results Act). Current reformers are considering similar ideas and methods for further strengthening accountability at regulatory agencies.

Efforts to further improve regulatory accountability could benefit from understanding the extent to which these previous government-wide efforts fared by exploiting their successes and/or avoiding their failures. This Regulatory Insight assesses the extent to which the eight initiatives succeeded in improving government accountability and performance. A future Insight will examine what lessons may be learned from these experiences.

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[1]    See, Executive Order 13563, “Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review,” 18 January 2011; Executive Order 13579, “Regulation and Independent Regulatory Agencies,” 11 July 2011; and Executive Order 13610, “Indentifying and Reducing Regulatory Burdens,” 10 May 2012. (Accessed 4 June 2016.)

[2]    For a discussion of various recent proposals to increase congressional and judicial oversight see Susan E. Dudley, “Improving Regulatory Accountability: Lessons from the Past and Prospects for the Future,” Case Western Reserve Law Review, Volume 65: Issue 4, 2015, pp. 1051-1056. (Accessed 3 June 2016.)

[3]    For a discussion regarding accountability and the obligation of government to inform the public on the results of its actions see David Walker, “GAO Answers: What’s in a Name?”, Roll Call, 19 June 2004. (Accessed 4 June 2016.)

[4]    Many management experts argue that taking responsibility for outcomes is a prerequisite for any organization to improve. See, for instance, Dave Ulrich, Jack Zenger and Norm Smallwood, Results-Based Leadership, (Harvard Business School Press: Boston, MA) 1999, pp. 17-20, William Gorham, “Foreword” in Harry P. Hatry, Performance Measurement: Getting Results, (The Urban Institute Press: Washington DC) 1999, p. xix, and Robert Shea, “Performance Budgeting in the United States,” OECD Journal on Budgeting, Vol. 8: No. 1 (2008), p. 2 (accessed 4 June 2016).

[5]    See, for instance, Kevin Madden and Howard Wolfson, “Embracing the Politics of Moneyball” in Jim Nussle and Peter Orszag eds., Moneyball for Government, (Disruption Books) 2014, pp. 60-81.

[6]    These eight initiatives are described in more detail in Marcus Peacock, “A List of Previous Efforts to Improve the Performance of Federal Regulatory Agencies,” Working Paper, The George Washington Regulatory Studies Center, June 2016.