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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Welcome to the End of Business as Usual in Government

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Consider this as a friendly forewarning. It was prompted by a Washington Post article, “Trump has a plan for government workers. They’re not going to like it.” 

Leaders who join the new administration from the business world are likely to focus far more on internal performance issues. It is common for corporate executives to have regular staff meetings where each attendee reports on progress in achieving goals. New leaders will want the assurance that operations are progressing as planned, and where there are problems, they will want to know that corrective actions have been taken. Their approach to management is likely to expose what is the weakest link in government’s “people management” practices—the management of performance.

Laughter could be the most positive reaction to the performance ratings. New agency leaders will expect their reports to commit to stretch performance goals and are not likely to accept excuses for missing the goals. Accountability is assumed. For many it will not be an easy transition.

Generally, as long as projects stay on schedule, leaders from the business world are not likely to get involved; they are accustomed to delegating responsibility. With initiatives to strengthen workforce performance, corporate leaders would typically rely on lower level executives, and specifically the CHRO to develop detailed plans and manage the project.

That’s true in healthcare as well. A decade ago I managed the pay and performance systems in a large, for profit hospital management company. (Among the facilities included is The George Washington University hospital.) Hospital executives manage with performance goals; patient care specialists operate with strict quality standards. Metrics are omnipresent and monitored daily; when a problem is identified, corrective action is taken almost immediately. Effective hospital leaders would not tolerate the VA’s “performance perversity” (the phrase used in the headline of a Los Angeles Times op-ed column).

In corporations as well as hospitals, successful performance is rewarded. Hospital incentives are not as generous but still an integral element of the compensation package. All executives and managers participate in the “management incentive plan” and are rewarded in part for the organization’s success. Individual performance is an element but only if it contributes to achieving organizational goals.

All of which is to say is that incoming agency leaders should be expected to press for change—to shake up the system. A number of Republican-led states have already introduced reform—Florida, Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, Arizona, South Carolina, Wisconsin and Indiana—so the precedent is well established. With the election increasing the number of Republican governors to 33 along with increased control of state legislatures, reform is undoubtedly going to expand.

Significantly, while the reforms have been discussed in media reports, the changes have not been rigorously evaluated to confirm that agencies have actually benefited. Other countries have also undertaken reform; the changes and the experience need to be understood. The new administration should only consider changes that have proven to contribute to better performance (although that’s somewhat naïve).

It would also be useful to document the reasons the National Security Personnel System failed at the Defense Department, along with the problems encountered with pay systems at the Securities & Exchange Commission and the Government Accountability Office. Past mistakes need to be avoided.

Reform has taken a different form in every jurisdiction. In Texas, for example, agencies are free to recruit, screen, and hire as they see fit. Tennessee has a Chief Learning Officer and is committed to supporting employee development. A common change is the movement away from automatic salary increases. (It’s time to drop the argument the step increases are not automatic.) There are probably as many variations of pay for performance as there are jurisdictions that have adopted the philosophy.

The critics will no doubt demand that pension reform be included. One of the most frequent critics, Congressman Jason Chavetz, is from Utah, which addressed the problem in 2010 by introducing a plan that has been cited as a model. What is not mentioned is that the new plan is far more generous than the typical corporate retirement plan.

Whatever changes are considered should be based on the best thinking from the success stories of other public employers or from leading corporations. 

The goal should be to create a more positive work environment. If there is one overriding lesson from the revolution in the way work is managed in leading companies, it’s that people are most productive when they are organized and managed for a purpose, empowered to make job-related decisions, supported in developing their abilities, and recognized for their contributions. It’s important to address poor performers and a “rampant lack of accountability” but threats of firing are not going to engage employee commitment.

Reform appears to be certain when the Trump administration takes office but there is no way to anticipate what form the changes will take. Agencies can either wait to learn what the new administration rolls out next year or take the initiative and create a task force to assemble information on leading edge thinking, especially the management of performance, evaluate current practices in light of that thinking, and initiate changes that will support and contribute to a better work experience and improved performance. 

Reports published by the Partnership for the Public Service and the Government Accountability Office along with numerous books and articles have already taken the first steps. It’s better to be proactive in defining the future than to have it defined by people who do not fully understand the federal environment.  

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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