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

Why Most Managers Should Delegate More Responsibilities

How does a public manager get public employees to produce results? The traditional answer is: Tell them precisely what to do. Don’t give them any room for discretion. If you do, they’ll just exploit the opportunity for their own, personal advantage.

For over a century, democracies have sought to limit—or more accurately, to prevent—public managers from exercising discretion. Such constraints are not, however, designed to produce results. They are designed to prevent corruption.

Indeed, for Progressive Era reformers who wanted to improve government, the overriding performance problem was corruption. In their campaign to clean up government the poster child was William “Boss” Tweed, who, from 1858 to 1871, ran New York City’s Tammany Hall.

The “posters” were Thomas Nast’s cartoons, in Harper’s Weekly. The message was clear and simple: If public employees can exercise discretion, they can and will make choices that benefit themselves not citizens.

Particularly important was limiting a public manager’s ability to decide whom to hire (and fire) and with whom to contract for a product or service. For if public managers had these kinds of discretion, they could —and would—hire their cousins and give contracts to their...

This Is No Way to Fix Defense Acquisition

As recently reported by Charlie Clark and others, the administration is threatening to veto the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the 2017 defense authorization bill. Not surprisingly, the veto threat is driven by debate over the closure of Guantanamo, relations with Cuba, and other widely debated public issues. But there is also a significant organizational proposal in the committee’s bill that the administration opposes as well—specifically, provisions that would do away with the current position of Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and divide most of the associated responsibilities between a new assistant secretary for research and engineering and a new undersecretary for management and support (more commonly known as the Chief Management Officer, or CMO).

The proposal is largely driven by committee chairman Sen. John McCain, who, for years, has made no secret of his belief that AT&L has become a primary cause of program delays and cost overruns. Last summer, in a forum hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which I had the opportunity to participate, the Arizona Republican excoriated the department’s leadership, and AT&L in particular, for becoming what he believes is a bureaucratic albatross...

The Real Problem With Inflated Performance Evaluations

It’s not as if we needed a reminder, but the Government Accountability Office has again confirmed in a June 9 report that performance ratings are badly inflated. That’s old news of course. 

It was first reported last Thursday by Government Executive and then today by the Washington Post. It’s not clear why the GAO report was requested by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. The data could not have been a surprise. He noted that the problem encourages mediocrity and fails to hold employees accountable. It is not, however, a problem Congress can solve.

Coincidentally, earlier last week the Washington Post had another column entitled, “This big change was supposed to make performance reviews better. Could it be making them worse?” It confirmed that businesses are trying to deal with similar problems. The column began by referring to “a revolution” that has “the much-hated annual performance review in the cross-fire.” 

Companies also have problems with inflated performance ratings, but they’re not nearly as bad as government. Critical articles have appeared for years—evaluations are seen as time consuming, excessively subjective, a cause of stress, demotivating and, it’s been argued, detrimental to mental health.

Almost 20 years ago...

Let Us Now Celebrate America's Incredibly Low Productivity

Put your feet up, America.

Just released numbers from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows U.S. worker productivity declining during the first three months of the year at a 0.6 percent pace, as measured by GDP per hour worked. That’s not as steep as the 1 percent drop that was the initial estimate reported for the quarter. But still.

It was the second straight negative reading, and in keeping with the post-Great Recession weakness that has caused certain economic observers to wring their hands raw. They should take a page from their proletarian compatriots, and chill.

Why? Well, because there was also a load of good news included in today’s productivity update. Hours and wages both climbed, with inflation-adjusted U.S. hourly compensation rising at a 4.2 percent rate in the first quarter. That’s the latest in a string of solid readings on pay after a long spate of flat wages.

Indications of rising hours worked along with peppy wages are worth celebrating, even if they’re partially to blame for the ongoing weakness in U.S. productivity. Productivity is conventionally described, as it was by the Wall Street Journal (paywall) today, as...

Here’s the Best Day and Time to Hold a Meeting

Meetings are a ubiquitous feature of office life, much disparaged yet still indispensable for most organizations. But given how much time we spend in meetings—17% of the work week, according to one survey—we rarely consider the best time to schedule them.

If you want to make sure everyone can be there, the best time to meet is Tuesday afternoon, according to a study from YouCanBookMe, a UK company that makes scheduling apps for businesses. The firm crunched data from more than 2 million responses to 530,000 invitations and concluded that 2:30pm Tuesday is the time most people are free.

While Monday mornings are popular for team meetings, it’s also one of the worst times, with only one in three invitees accepting invitations to meet. (The most likely days for people to be out of the office are Monday and Friday.) Attendance rises in the afternoon, when the day’s work load has eased and people feel they’re better prepared.

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Bridget Harris, co-founder of YouCanBookMe, said the company holds an all-hands meeting at 3pm Wednesdays. The afternoon slot means participants...

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