Measuring Performance:

The Corporation for National and Community Service Faces Challenges Demonstrating Outcomes

GAO-12-310: Published: Feb 17, 2012. Publicly Released: Feb 17, 2012.

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George A. Scott
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What GAO Found

CNCS officials expect that most grantees from its main programs will adopt at least 1 of the agency’s 16 agency-wide performance measures. Specifically, officials told us that AmeriCorps State and National and VISTA grantees will adopt at least 1 of CNCS’s performance measures by fiscal year 2012, and Senior Corps grantees will adopt at least 1 measure by fiscal year 2013. However, officials also said that they plan to fund some activities that do not fall under the performance measures, particularly activities that meet local needs and/or are innovative. For example, CNCS has funded grantees in the state of Washington to carry out gang violence prevention activities to address this community challenge. This could present challenges for CNCS as it balances accountability, using its performance measures to assess the impact of grantees’ service activities, with flexibility, allowing grantees to take on projects that meet local needs. CNCS may find it difficult to demonstrate the effectiveness of its service activities that fall outside its performance measures. Additionally, CNCS faces challenges using its performance measures to promote accountability among its Senior Corps grantees, as legal restrictions make it difficult for CNCS to remove funding from grantees that consistently fail to meet their performance targets, and these restrictions include some requirements for Senior Corps programs that do not apply to CNCS’s other programs. These restrictions can make it more difficult to hold these grantees accountable for performance. Specifically, officials told us that failure to meet performance targets is not a sufficient reason to re-compete a Senior Corps grant, and that it is very difficult to terminate a grant for poor performance. At the time of our review, CNCS officials told us that they have not yet sought statutory changes to address these legal constraints.

Grantees we interviewed reported performance measurement challenges in four general areas that may hamper CNCS’s ability to measure its impact: understanding and applying CNCS’s performance requirements, developing data collection approaches, collecting data, and reporting data. For example, one grantee told us that CNCS’s guidance was too broad, and as a result, it had a difficult time understanding how to match its program work to the agency’s performance measurement requirements. With regard to developing data collection approaches, one grantee working with elementary and high school students reported difficulties designing an approach that would allow the program to collect and measure changes in student behavior and knowledge to demonstrate their impact. Grantees with multiple worksites and limited staff capacity pointed to challenges collecting performance data across worksites. Finally, grantees commented that it was challenging to report their performance data through eGrants, CNCS’s computer system. CNCS has taken some steps to address these challenges; however, many of these steps are in the early implementation stages.

Why GAO Did This Study

It is important for federal agencies—and their grantees—to demonstrate the impact of their work and ensure the efficient use of their resources. This becomes even more important during times of fiscal stress and tight budget constraints as Congress makes difficult funding choices. In fiscal year 2011, Congress appropriated approximately $1 billion for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS)—the federal agency responsible for administering the country’s national service programs—to carry out a variety of federally funded programs, such as AmeriCorps. Through these programs, CNCS provides grants to more than 70,000 volunteer organizations to address a range of community challenges through service activities such as tutoring children, responding to natural disasters, or helping seniors to live independently. In 2009, the Serve America Act made substantial changes to CNCS’s mission, including giving CNCS new areas of emphasis, such as working with veterans, and directing it to focus more on performance evaluation and cost-effectiveness. The Serve America Act also mandated that we perform a series of reviews relating to program effectiveness with respect to CNCS’s performance measures.

In 2010, we reported that the performance measures from CNCS’s previous strategic plan were poorly aligned with its strategic goals and did not demonstrate the results of its work. Given that CNCS is in the process of implementing its new strategic plan and performance measures, we examined the following key questions: (1) To what extent does CNCS fund service activities that are covered by its performance measures? (2) What key challenges, if any, affect the ability of CNCS and its grantees to measure performance?

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Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: CNCS pursued statutory changes consistent with this recommendation. In its Congressional Budget Justification for fiscal year 2013, released February 13, 2012, CNCS requested statutory changes to address the legal constraints on the Senior Corps programs. If enacted, these changes would remove most of the constraints that currently prevent CNCS from holding Senior Corps grantees accountable for meeting performance targets.

    Recommendation: To provide other options for CNCS to hold Senior Corps grantees accountable for performance, the Chief Executive Officer of CNCS should take action to seek statutory changes, as appropriate, that would allow it to re-compete Senior Corps grants if the agency has determined current grant recipients do not meet agency performance measures, or financial management or other requirements.

    Agency Affected: Corporation for National and Community Service


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