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Is Your Agency Set Up to Drive Performance?

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“I will act on my own to slash bureaucracy and streamline the permitting process for key projects, so we can get more construction workers on the job as fast as possible." — President Obama, 2014 State of the Union address

The familiar refrain to cut government red tape has become almost cliché. In a town rancorous with divisive rhetoric, agreement on this point is nearly universal. And there’s the rub: How exactly do we accomplish that?

To be fair, much progress has indeed been made. President Carter’s deregulation efforts in the 1970s were amplified by Reaganomics. President Clinton’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government attempted to root out waste during the 1990s while George W. Bush targeted pork barrel spending at the onset of the 21st century. President Obama has continued the crusade against red tape and government waste by naming the nation’s first federal chief performance officer, Jeffrey Zients, in 2009. These efforts have all produced a steady evolution toward improved quality and performance. Government is substantially more transparent and accountable than ever before.

Yet for all the successes of the past four decades, there is much work to be done. Zients, since tapped to be director of the National Economic Council, is indeed a change agent and visionary of the highest caliber. Under his leadership, the federal government has begun the process of establishing agency goals and developing robust systems for performance measurement. But a recent survey of federal employees by the Office of Personnel Management demonstrates that a true results-oriented performance culture remains beyond the grasp of most agencies.

OPM’s 2013 Human Capital Assessment and Accountability Framework analysis shows a 51 percent positive rating for results-oriented performance culture. Moreover, only 19 percent of federal workers believe that pay raises at their agency are tied to performance. Clearly significant challenges remain in implementing the administration’s goal of creating a government that is more efficient, effective, innovative and responsive.

What can senior leaders do to promote a results-oriented performance culture within their organizations? There is ubiquitous agreement on the conditions necessary to create such a culture: employee engagement, strong performance measures throughout the organization and management commitment to continual improvement. These concepts are simple to understand but difficult to implement.

How can these conditions be created to promote a culture of results-oriented performance? A new report from ASQ (American Society for Quality) may provide clues.

The report, “ASQ Global State of Quality Research,” provides a baseline of fundamental quality and continuous improvement practices from around the world. The study involved 1,991 respondents in 22 countries. The research found that only 59 percent of organizations that use a distributed approach to quality management use measures to drive performance, compared with 81 percent for organizations that manage quality through a functional central committee. Only 39 percent of organizations with a distributed leadership model use quality measures as a component of a performance compensation system. The study seems to demonstrate that a results-oriented performance culture is diluted when accountability and responsibility are distributed across the organization.

At first blush this observation appears counterintuitive, but it’s not when you really consider the application. If a central governing body within an agency is given the top priority to improve performance measures, then that responsibility becomes the primary focus. When the responsibility to implement quality measures is distributed across the organization it becomes just one more item on a to-do list for overworked front-line managers. The research seems to suggest that centralizing quality and performance improvement efforts can promote a true results-oriented performance culture in most organizations.

Federal leaders who are looking to improve their Results-Oriented Performance Culture index scores should look at their management model. Is the primary responsibility for performance management centralized or distributed across the agency? Is there a central office or committee within the agency that manages quality efforts and is directly responsible for the success of the program? If not, then it’s likely measures are not being used by front-line managers and employees to drive performance.

Until measures are used across all levels of the agency to empower employees, the establishment of a true results-oriented performance culture will continue to be just beyond our reach. And that dreadful red tape we’ve been so desperately trying to cut for more than 40 years will continue to bedevil us.

John Baranzelli is chair-elect of the ASQ Government Division and author of Making Government Great Again.

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that the percentages showing use of performance measures compare organizations with a centralized quality management function to those with a distributed approach. 

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