Bush yesterday signed a far-reaching executive order setting up new procedures for government agencies to assess the performance of each and every one their programs.
By mandating "Performance Improvement Officers" at each agency and establishing a "Performance Improvement Council" run by the White House, the order essentially adds to the bureaucracy a new level of political appointees -- able to give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down to programs based on vaguely defined notions of effectiveness and efficiency.
So where was the press coverage this morning? There wasn't any. The White House e-mailed the order out to the press corps at 7:30 p.m. There no advance notice and no formal kickoff event. And no one bothered to write about it.
But the ramifications are potentially enormous. For analysis, I turned to Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit public-interest watchdog organization.
Bass said his first question was: "Why now? I find it interesting that we're seeing this push for major reform when these guys are leaving in a year. And it makes me think that they are trying to indirectly codify procedures that they were not able to get approved by the Congress.... I think this is exactly the reason why we elect a Congress."
Bass said the system Bush is setting up has a certain logic to it. "It really is an obligation of government to assess whether there is benefit from the programs that are being conducted," he said.
The order also requires each agency to put onto its Web site "regularly updated and accurate information on the performance of the agency and its programs, in a readily useable and searchable form, that sets forth the successes, shortfalls, and challenges of each program and describes the agency's efforts to improve the performance of the program."
"I really like the transparency," Bass said.
But who gets to decide what's working and what's not? "Of course we want a more effective government. Of course we want more efficient spending. But what does that mean?" Bass asked. "That's the danger. I want to as best I can give them credit for tackling a thorny issue, but the downside is that the system they've set up opens up the door to political manipulation. Even if their intent is to create an objective, fair, open process, it is inevitable that this kind of new structure can be used to damage agency programs to meet their ideological objectives."