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White House strips government accountability measures from budgeting process

The White House is stripping a good governance provision from the budgeting process that requires agencies to set goals and meet them in order to get funding, lifting the protocols just before President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors Biden celebrates vaccine approval but warns 'current improvement could reverse' MORE takes office.

The memo, posted to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) website on Christmas Eve, completely deletes from a government guidance the requirement that agencies do strategic planning and publicly share progress in meeting their goals.

OMB’s plans to overhaul the process, first reported by The Hill on Tuesday, surprised observers. A source familiar with the discussions described the mechanism as “in place to really make government, ideally, more efficient.”

In a memo to agencies, OMB Acting Director Russell T. Vought said the measures were being removed, in part, due to a lack of interest from the public.

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“The thousands of pages of performance data generated by agencies and posted on performance.gov each year attract little interest,” Vought wrote, calling the effort one of many to “reduce the burden and expense of low-value government work [that] have been a hallmark of this administration.”

“We have consistently sought to streamline or eliminate bureaucratic processes that do not lead to impactful change or measurable efficiencies.” 

But experts on A-11, the 1,000 page government circular that lays out budgeting and performance requirements, say the process is key for accountability — requiring agencies to build a plan for meeting goals and justify their expenses to the White House.

The process was created as a result of the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), a bipartisan law aimed at tying budgeting to results.

“All of this is embedded in here because it represents the priorities the administration is trying to accomplish, and of course the budget is one of the principal tools that they have to get stuff done,” Robert Shea, associate director at OMB during the George W. Bush administration who is now a principal at consulting firm Grant Thornton LLP, previously told The Hill.

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“If performance measures are pulled out of A-11, the White House has lost a lot of leverage in getting agencies to take that threat seriously.”

Experts say it's an unusual time to update the guidance.

In his memo, Vought promises “forthcoming guidance” on how agencies can comply with the GPRA, but he also notes that revisions to this particular part of A-11 will be “completed in the next annual update,” something the Biden administration would in theory undertake this coming summer.

“It is co-opting the prerogative of the Biden administration to mold its own budget process,” Shea said of the A-11, which is typically only revised once a year. But Thursday’s memo is the second time this year that the White House has updated it.

“No one knew they were working on updating it at all,” said the source familiar with the discussions.

“This is very close to the transition and is not normally when you’d be looking to revise this.”