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The 6 Ways Government Needs to Improve Performance Management

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Looking for an overview guide to understanding how the federal government goes about managing the performance of its many goals, missions, and programs?  Here it is!

The President’s fiscal year 2014 budget was released last week and emphasizes the creation of “a culture of performance improvement.”  This is also the theme of a new  IBM Center report, by University of Wisconsin professor Donald Moynihan who is a close observer of the international performance movement. It describes the evolution of the federal performance management system over the past 20 years since the passage of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA).  In addition, he describes recent progress in achieving meaningful performance results within targeted programs, as well as anticipated future changes that will occur over the next few years as a result of the new requirements of the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010, which significantly amended the earlier law.  His bottom line:  the culture of performance improvement is more important than the compliance with many procedural requirements. 

The report, The New Federal Performance System:  Implementing the GPRA Modernization Act, is an outgrowth of a forum held in late 2012 by the IBM Center and the National Academy of Public Administration that brought together key stakeholders from agencies, Congress, state-local groups, and non-profits involved in the implementation of the federal performance system.  That forum examined the state of the current performance system and identified key issues the federal government will face in coming years to improve the performance of federal programs and the results of government initiatives.

The report lays out six recommendations on “where do we go from here?”

Recommendation 1:  Connect the performance system to public service motivation.  The goal of any performance management system is to improve performance by creating a culture that thrives on incredible performance.  The systems, processes, and procedures that commonly accompany any performance management system are intended to help frame it.  They, however, do not produce performance.  So what does?  Dr. Moynihan says that an “appeal to the motivation that public servants have to help others through their work” is the secret to effective performance in government.

He recommends what many successful leaders have done:  select clear goals that motivate employees, make goals become the glue that holds networks together, connect each employee’s job to program beneficiaries, celebrate success, and link to employee incentive systems.

Each of these elements is the job of mission leaders, not process managers.

Recommendation 2: Build a learning culture.  Successful performance systems thrive when an organizational culture supports performance management.  Doing this in practice, however, means creating an environment where there is continuous learning.  The new GPRA law helps, by requiring routine quarterly and strategy reviews.

Recommendation 3:  Balance top-down targets with bottom-up innovations.  The top-down goal-setting aspect of the federal performance system is clear, but Moynihan notes “The federal government has done less well in systematically capturing bottom-up knowledge.”  He recommends three actions:  learn from network members who are from multiple levels in the organization; use benchmarking to identify what works and spread it; and disseminate lessons, not just data, on how to improve performance.

Recommendation 4:  Integrate program evaluation into the performance management system.  While performance measures can tell leaders “what” is going on, but it requires program evaluation to explain “why” something is occurring.  Both are necessary elements in a data-informed decision-making process.  As a start, Dr. Moynihan recommends agencies redefine “performance information” to include program evaluation.  He also recommends incorporating evaluation expertise into performance discussions, much like does the Department of Labor.  He also notes that agencies should take advantage of the OMB guidance on the delegation of administrative flexibility as a way to test different approaches.

Recommendation 5:  Ensure leaders are committed to performance management.  Moynihan says “One of the clearest research findings about performance management is that such systems are more likely to succeed when agency leaders are perceived as committed to the performance system, or to [achieving] results in general.”  The Modernization Act requires the designation of performance champions within each agency, starting with the agency’s chief operating officer.  The White House should select leaders for these positions based on their performance management skills and whether the individuals have experience in “managing with data.”

Recommendation 6:  Connect with Congress and stakeholders.  While Congress has legislated the federal performance management system, it has not been a consistent user or champion of it.  Moynihan says “The Modernization Act offers a fresh start and new opportunity for Congress to make use of the performance management system.” 

He encourages agencies and OMB to “proactively consult with Congress in the goal-setting process” and for agency COOs to “proactively reach out to their congressional committees to find out what performance information is of particular interest to them.” 

He also notes that “Congress has a responsibility to engage” by developing ways to coordinate input to agencies across its multiple committees and subcommittees with jurisdiction over various agencies.  Moynihan also recommends agencies more systematically involve external stakeholders in providing input into the development of agency strategic goals.

Dr. Moynihan concludes his report, noting: “The evolution of the federal performance system . . . may seem slow and unsteady at times, but over the course of 20 years the system has clearly evolved.”  As if to reinforce that, the just-released President’s Budget for fiscal year 2014 says: “The Obama Administration expected agencies to use evidence to set priorities and find increasingly effective and cost-effective practices.” It also expects agencies to:

  • Test new practices to identify what works
  • Adjust and reallocate resources or change practices based on evidence of what works
  • Constantly ask if there are lower cost options for getting the job done, and
  • Share information publicly to “enhance accountability and facilitate understanding of the services government provides.”

So the evolution continues!

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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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