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OMB Nominee Needs to Understand Creating a 'High-Performing' Workforce Won't Be Easy

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Rep. Mick Mulvaney testifies at his nomination hearing to lead the Office of Management and Budget. Rep. Mick Mulvaney testifies at his nomination hearing to lead the Office of Management and Budget. Ron Sachs/CNP/MediaPunch/IPX

In his nomination hearing to lead the Office of Management and Budget, Rep. Mick Mulvaney said he wants a “high-morale, high-performance” federal workforce, and that he plans to look for ways to better reward top employees and hold poor performers accountable.

He will not have to look far. The creation of high performance organizations has been the subject of a growing number of books. I co-authored one of the few focused on government, It’s Time for High-Performance Government:  Winning Strategies to Encourage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce. My co-author, Bill Wilder, served for almost 25 years as the Human Resource Director for the city of Charlotte, at a time when it was widely regarded as a high performance organization.  

One of the most important lessons from Charlotte and other high performance organizations is the essential role of leaders. Bill argues that “the individual at the top must challenge the process and have and communicate a framework and clear vision for the organization. Their frequent and honest communications and recognition of employee achievements is a must.” Organizations that achieve long term success in every sector have highly regarded, respected leaders.  

Fortunately, the Trump administration has appointed several business and military leaders who should readily understand and accept their leadership roles. They are accustomed to holding people accountable.

Government starts with the advantage that many employees opted for government careers because of their interest in public service. But the freeze on hiring, the plan to reduce retirement and health benefits, and shrink the workforce have prompted many employees to question their career choice. The view of federal careers will also adversely affect recruiting for the better qualified job seekers for the foreseeable future.  

Agency efforts will also be constrained by the civil service system. It inhibits the utilization of talent, is a barrier to problem solving, and supports actions that are contrary to a performance culture. The bureaucracy also inflates operating costs. A recent example is the 22-page “guidance” issued by the Office of Personnel Management to remind managers how to handle performance problems.  

The purpose here is to outline what the research and experience tells us about the areas that will need attention to create a high performance workforce.  

  • People like working in high performance organizations. They like to be associated with winners. The work experience is positive and satisfying. They benefit from enhanced status with family and friends.  Recruiting strategies should promote the value of public service.
  • Possibly the most important characteristic is trust, at all levels. Trust is earned; consistency is required to sustain it. Employees need to know what they can expect.
  • High performance organizations have a mission and purpose that attracts highly qualified applicants.  It contributes to a larger applicant pool. There is little voluntary turnover in high performing companies.
  • Communications is a key. It’s essential that employees understand the goals and how their work efforts contribute to achieving goals. Dashboards can be used to track daily results at all levels of government, and social media could be used to keep employees informed.
  • High performance organizations manage employees as assets. They invest in developing their knowledge and skills and empower them to make job-related decisions.   
  • Successful organizations commit to developing effective managers and supervisors. Their career progress depends on results and their success in building high performing teams, the importance of which has been confirmed by Gallup’s research.
  • The best employers maintain a commitment to learning and skill development. They view it as an investment, and prioritize coaching and mentoring.  
  • Performance evaluations focus on job-specific results and competencies. Feedback is solicited from multiple sources. The best supervisors provide ongoing feedback and coaching, informal as well as formal.  Career progress and rewards are based on performance and demonstrated competence, not seniority.
  • Salaries are managed as a component of a total rewards system planned to attract and retain talent.  Rewards are both financial and non-financial. Companies routinely adjust pay levels annually to remain competitive.
  • Pay for performance is universal in high performance organizations. When linked to performance goals, it reinforces individual and team accountability.

The transition to pay for performance has obviously proved problematic, but a growing list of state and local governments, as well as federal demonstration projects, have accepted the policy change. Unfortunately, the reports on the terminated National Security Personnel System do not provide useful lessons learned.  But we know from other sectors that the core issue is the credibility and perceived fairness of the ratings that control pay increases. That highlights the necessary first step—developing and gaining acceptance for a credible performance management process to identify the outstanding performers.

This requires changing the culture. That’s difficult in the most positive of circumstances. Everyone will need to understand the vision and how the changes will contribute to a better work experience. The strategy should involve employees in all phases of planning and implementation.

To raise performance levels, employees will need to be empowered and approach their work and working relationships differently. The history of similar initiatives, especially NSPS, provides clear evidence that employees resist change. Gaining employee cooperation when morale is already low and many are disheartened and anxious about the future will require strong leadership and regular communication from the highest levels. “Change agents” should be involved in each agency. There are a lot of experts but no easy answers.

Mr Mulvaney has a solid business education so he no doubt understands the complexity of what he plans to undertake. Rewarding high performers and holding employees accountable is at the core but it has to be to part of a broader change strategy or its likely to be resisted. If the creation of a high performance work environment was as straightforward as replacing the pay system, few companies would fail.  

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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