Agencies constantly are expected to define and deliver on detailed metrics to boost efficiency and improve performance. But in driving the workforce to meet agency goals, engaging employees is critical and should not get lost in the push to check all the boxes, observers say.
Members of the federal Chief Human Capital Officers Council and union leaders this summer are taking a closer look at the government's performance management system and ways to improve employee accountability and reward high achievers. The working group will make recommendations to the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations in September.
Many agree a good system is about more than just assessment-empowering employees, from senior executives to rank-and-file workers, drives performance.
"The more engaged employees are, the more productive and effective they are," says John Palguta, vice president of policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "It's the 'well, duh' finding. If you've got folks who are disengaged, who don't like their bosses, who don't like their work, who just come to their job to pick up their paycheck, they're probably not giving you their best effort."
Agencies have tools at their disposal to boost engagement, such as telework and flexible schedules, awards and incentives, temporary or detail assignments, and mentoring, all of which can help workers refocus on the mission. According to Palguta, how employees view their supervisors and agency leaders, as well as the degree to which they are provided with a positive work environment, are the most powerful predictors of commitment to agency goals. Leaders set the tone of the organization and drive a culture of improvement. If agencies improve employee engagement and how well they regard their managers, they likely will see a bottom-line impact on performance, he says.
Scott Spreier, senior principal at the Hay Group, a consulting firm, cautions that performance management systems, which set individual and agencywide goals, too often are used in place of good leadership. It's challenging in government to effectively boost performance, but top officials must lead the charge in changing and rewarding good behavior, he says.
"A lot of focus is spent on the mechanics and metrics of performance management," Spreier says. "You need that. But you also need people to focus on accomplishing the mission, not checking the box off. Tie it to where you are really going."
But agencies also shouldn't discount the importance of metrics, says Gail Lovelace, chief leadership officer at the General Services Administration. Measurement adds clarity around an organization's goals, which are important for employees to understand, she says. "If you don't put the right metric or measure on the table, you can drive the wrong kind of behavior," she adds. "What you measure is where people pay attention."
Metrics need to be incorporated into individual employee performance plans, Lovelace says. Palguta notes performance management as a practice is about setting reasonable standards, communicating with employees, ensuring they have the skills to meet those standards, and providing regular feedback as well as an annual review. Managers should not get lost in the assessment itself, but should look at what employees are doing all year long. Ensuring the connection is there will lead to a more effective organization, he says.
"It's important to push the envelope to find good measures of organizational performance, track that over time and hold managers accountable, both rewarding those who meet performance targets and then working with managers who are not meeting their targets to figure out what's going on and how we can improve," he says. "It's the same thing when holding nonsupervisory employees accountable. That's what's going to make a difference."