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More Executives Aren't Going to Solve Government’s Performance Problem

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A bill now working through Congress, The Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act (S. 1550), would require agencies to designate staff responsible for bolstering and documenting performance of this vital bureaucratic function. It will no doubt benefit government but the idea that it is even necessary should be a reason to pause and consider how many laws have been passed over the past two decades or more to improve government performance. Yes, of course, government should adopt best practices for program management but is it really necessary to spell that out in statute or create additional bureaucracy to make it happen? 

Instead of adding new executive positions, a different strategy would start by asking why an agency finds itself with headline-grabbing performance problems in the first place. With minimal guidance, an internal team could conduct such an assessment and develop solutions. If legislation is truly needed, it’s a sad commentary.

Program management is not some arcane specialty. New projects are started every day in organizations. Consultants effectively start a new project with each client assignment. There is software to help with project planning. Beyond the initial planning, project or program management is no different than good, day to day management. That’s important to the success of every work group. 

The law would create a new position, a Project Management Improvement Officer (presumably a PMIO). Their office will presumably be down the hall from the PIOs. The legislation is silent on how agencies are to approach the change management issues that are always central to improving performance. 

Good Management is Universally Important

Research shows that high performance in every sector is attributable to a short list of practices that contribute to and reinforce the importance of gaining the commitment of employees at all levels to achieve organizational goals. The best hospitals and schools rely on the same core practices that explain high performance in business. Actually it’s true whenever a group works together on projects that take weeks or months. 

It starts of course with planning. Project leaders have to define what they want to accomplish, and then rely on staff to determine the resources that will be needed, and agree on a realistic schedule.  Goal setting is basic. Longer term goals need to be balanced with interim targets to monitor progress.  Defining goals is essential, if not with metrics, at least with statements that clarify success. People will respond and commit to so-called stretch or aspirational goals; they like challenges when they are empowered to influence results.

High performing organizations monitor metrics—the systems are now common—with results communicated to all staff. Keeping employees informed is basic. Performance is reviewed continuously and discussed in group meetings. When problems surface or circumstances change, jobs are redefined, work groups reorganized, resources reallocated, new strategies or methods adopted—all to achieve goals.

It’s those actions that differentiate “management” from administration. The systems and metrics support the decision making but have little direct impact on performance. The essence of evidence-based management is the use of metrics to respond to developments and manage change.

The importance of people and their performance is very clear in healthcare and higher education. In both sectors the same bodies of knowledge and the same technology are available to all organizations but the great hospitals, like Johns Hopkins, as well as the great universities, stand out.  It’s the accomplishments of their people that differentiate them from other institutions. That’s true for the best organizations at all levels of government.

The research confirms the importance of human capital practices that reinforce good performance.  The practices include the recognition and rewarding of high performers, and removal of poor performers. When there are no consequences for mediocre performance, it sends the message that performance is not a priority. The best performers need to understand they and their contributions are valued. 

High performance is never attributable to a legislative mandate or someone’s edict. The track record is clear. Laws have been passed, management systems implemented, hearings held but performance problems continue. Performance gains from technology investments have been disappointing. This is not to suggest problems are pervasive across government. However, when situations like the extended wait lines in airports are headlines, it hurts everyone.

Continuous Improvement, not a “Gotcha”

Even the most successful companies regularly review their operations to identify ways to improve.  The practice is certainly not new; it goes back decades. It’s almost a religion in some organizations.

It does not require designated leaders or specialized staff. The practices associated with good management are well documented. It’s straightforward to audit management practices periodically.  Teams of employees can conduct the reviews. The ideas to improve operations frequently come from frontline workers, but only when their ideas are valued and management is receptive to change.

Government is too often not open to change. The classification system is a serious impediment to reorganizations as well as redefining jobs. Effective change also rides on empowerment—employees need to be comfortable taking the initiative to address problems when they first surface.

Empowerment is not possible where there is no trust, and unfortunately distrust is pervasive. The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey shows one-third of the respondents do not trust their supervisor.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that’s true at all levels. That is basic to solving problems.

Regular reviews to improve operation are valuable even if there are no apparent problems. That’s the essence of continuous improvement. The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency set an example when it committed, after the agency was created in the 1990s, to annual assessments of its HR system based on employee surveys, targeted interviews and focus groups. The findings are used to address issues that surface.

By contrast, there was never an in-depth review of the National Security Personnel System at any point in its brief existence. Government rarely documents its failures until years later.

People want to work in highly regarded, well managed organizations. They take pride in their contributions. Addressing performance problems before they make headlines would benefit everyone. Instead of adding to the bureaucracy, agencies should invest in ongoing evaluations of their management practices and in building a work climate where employees are empowered and committed to improving performance. Imagine the difference if the media highlighted success stories.

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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