Agencies Overreach When Asked to Define Their Own Mission

Published October 1, 1997

In September 1993, lawmakers at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue approved the Government Performance and Results Act. Commonly referred to as the Results Act, the law requires federal agencies to submit strategic plans that clearly specify their missions and goals.

With the early stages of the Act’s implementation completed on September 30 of this year, it has become apparent that many Federal agency heads do not know and cannot articulate their reason for being. Despite Washington rhetoric about the merits of a federal government that “works better and costs less,” the agencies’ initial strategic plans reveal a disturbing lack of mission, objectives, and performance measurements.

The Results Act acknowledges that the American public wants, and is entitled to, a less wasteful and more accountable federal government. According to a June 1997 Government Accounting Office (GAO) study, however, the Act is not likely to satisfy Americans: “[Agency plans] will not be of a consistently high quality or as useful for congressional or agency decision-making as they could be.” To make matters worse, GAO data also revealed that many federal agencies believe the “good government” intent of the law–to make the federal government more accountable and responsible to the American public–is a waste of time.

The strategic plans could have offered more information than has been available in the past to evaluate the merits of program spending, making it possible to eliminate those programs that were duplicative, wasteful, or simply not the proper function of the federal government. For the most part, however, plans submitted by the agencies are too broad, fail to differentiate between outputs and outcomes, and often confuse means with ends. Mission creep, “feel good” objectives, and duplication are apparent in the plans.

The strategic plan submitted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, emphasizes its role as a “public health organization.” Statutory law, however, describes the EPA’s role in terms of “human health and the environment.” As Congress recently pointed out, the “Agency has taken responsibility for far more than lies within its influence.”

The EPA also reports that it has established a goal to expand wetlands “by at least 100,000 acres per year” by the year 2005. Although the agency may have this authority, an objective that takes the private property of taxpayers does not appear to comport with the Result Act’s goal of a “smaller government that costs less.”

The National Park Service hopes, by the year 2002, that 60 percent of park visitors will understand the purpose and significance of the park they are visiting. The U.S. Forest Service does not have even this minimal customer-oriented focus, insisting in its strategic plan that its effectiveness should be measured by employee satisfaction.

Based on a false premise–that federal agencies should be permitted to define their own missions–the Results Act appears destined to fail. Rather than give an unelected career bureaucracy the opportunity to draft a mission statement that ensures its own future, Congress should be the one to set agency goals and clarify agency missions.

Geoffrey Freeman is a research assistant at The Heritage Foundation.