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Next Steps in Improving Government Performance

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Have government reformers been putting the chicken before the egg? For years, their attention has been on improving performance by focusing on program results.  But a new study released today by the National Academy of Public Administration says a key step has been missing in that approach.

The Academy’s study questions the progress of performance improvement efforts over the past two decades, asking: “To what extent has the government’s capacity improved as a result of these management initiatives?” After reviewing Government Accounting Office reports and other studies, it concludes: “Based on limited evidence, the record is mixed.”

The Academy judges that, with a new administration, and new data and analytic tools, “This is an opportune time to consider new ideas to strengthen the government’s ability to perform.” It then undertook research to explore options. A panel of experienced Academy fellows found that reformers “have not given sufficient attention to the building blocks of performance—healthy organizations with engaged employees, who have the capacity and tools to deliver on their mission.”  

They examined approaches used successfully in large private sector corporations, governments in other countries, and pioneering federal agencies to identify potential strategies best suited for government today. They found that federal agencies have greater access to granular data, such as employee engagement survey results, than ever before, yet front line managers are not leveraging these data to inform their decisions.

The panel concluded that organizational units within agencies, such as Social Security field offices and air traffic control towers, need to be the new building blocks for improving performance, and that a new emphasis should be placed on increasing the health and capacity of these frontline units. Only by strengthening these building blocks can the larger performance goals be achieved.

The panel recommends expanding—not replacing—the existing federal performance management framework by creating a new bottom-up demand for improving organizational health and performance that is tailored to the needs of different missions and units. Creating this new approach would have three strategic components. The Academy’s study recommends that the Office of Management and Budget create a governmentwide focus on organizational health in order to:

  1. Strengthen unit-level health and performance. Start by using existing data, such as the employee engagement index derived from the annual governmentwide employee viewpoint survey, to assess and diagnose the state of unit-level organizational health and performance. These survey data are available to managers of 28,000 work units across the government via UnlockTalent.gov. The panel says agencies should expand and refine their analyses over time to include the use of other data sources, such as operational and mission support performance data.
  1. Create a learning-based approach to improving results. To act on these data-centric assessments and diagnoses, the government should encourage the use of a learning-based approach (rather than a top-down directive approach) to improve organizational capacity and performance in agencies. This should be done by engaging front-line organizational units to develop their own individually tailored plans for improvement. The specific elements of such plans would be defined within each major mission area. The plans and strategies may cross program and agency boundaries. Plans would be peer-reviewed to reinforce the learning-based approach.
  1. Employ the power of data analytics to manage. To sustain the learning-based approach over time, managers will need to make effective use of a flood of new data relevant to their operations. They need to be given tools to access, analyze, and apply those data, as well as the skills to manage in this new data-rich environment. The panel encourages the creation of communities of practice where managers can learn from each other’s experiences well as from more formal training opportunities.

The Academy panel says that “Leadership for this effort must come from the agencies.” The panel encourages the Office of Management and Budget to work with the President’s Management Council, comprised of departmental deputy secretaries and chief operating officers, but the agencies must see this as their opportunity to collectively drive performance by ensuring that the foundations of healthy organizational units are in place.

The Academy’s president, Terry Gerton, says “The new strategy presented here is both visionary and practical.” It will be interesting to see to what extent agencies agree.

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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