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How to Maximize Employee Performance

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President Trump’s March 13 executive order, which requires agencies to develop plans to reorganize federal departments, potentially could lead to the most far reaching civil service reform in at least a century. It is badly needed.

As OMB Director Mick Mulvaney noted in his guidance to agencies on fulfilling the requirements of the executive order, it is essential to “improve performance and increase accountability.” As agencies develop their reform plans, due at the end of June, they should consider these factors:

The Elements of High Performance

Studies in the private sector have shown that the potential for improved performance is significant.  Rethinking the work-management paradigm could trigger gains of 30 to 40 percent. One researcher used the phrase “action levers” for the list of changes known to influence performance. The gains come from empowering employees and tapping previously underused capabilities.  

But unless the Administration radically rethinks the traditional, control-oriented approach to organizing and managing employees, any performance gains are likely to be marginal. The key is delegating responsibility and trusting employees. Eliminating management levels will be an important step.  

A high performance workforce exhibits several basic features:

  • An employment staff that proactively recruits well qualified applicants and works with managers to fill openings quickly
  • A workforce planning process that forecasts the need for critical job skills and employee turnover
  • Resources to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities employees need to perform at their best
  • A performance management process that involves continuous feedback and coaching, based on individual performance goals and job-related competencies
  • A market-aligned salary system where pay and cash incentives are based on performance

To instill these features in government, it will be essential to take the following steps:

  • Review components of the civil service system to identify and eliminate antiquated provisions that unnecessarily impede agency performance
  • Maintain a positive employer brand that enables agencies to attract well qualified job applicants
  • Eliminate or modify the classification system to enable agencies to reassign employees or redefine jobs with minimal delay
  • Make individual performance and competence the primary criteria in all promotions to higher level jobs
  • Identify and manage poor performers to support improved performance or, when necessary, terminate them
  • Keep stakeholders and employees informed of progress in achieving strategic goals

Leaders must frequently reinforce the importance of performance and improved results in meetings and presentations and recognize publicly the responsible teams and individuals.

The Trump administration’s plan to “eliminate unnecessarily redundant levels of management or administrative support” will open the door to empowering employees. In the private sector, the 1990 recession prompted companies to eliminate layers of management, which increased the span of control and forced managers to delegate decision to lower levels.

Organizing for Reform

Meaningful reorganization is unquestionably the largest and most complex project any agency could undertake. To guide the process, every agency will need a project management office focused on the effort. The PMO should be staffed by individuals with strong credentials in analyzing and organizing work systems, technology, legal and human resources, and of course the team needs to include individuals with an intimate knowledge of agency operations. A similar group in the Office of Management and Budget  could coordinate, monitor and advise agency PMOs.  

It will be equally important to reorganize human resources offices. My experience convinced me years ago that people whose career has been in administrative/transaction roles find it difficult to gain acceptance as consultants and advisers.  

Replacing existing personnel management systems and practices will be essential to reorganization, but government’s HR specialists do not have the expertise to plan and gain the needed buy-in to for new practices needed to support high performance. In leading companies, HR is a catalyst in driving change.  That should be a goal for federal HR offices.

Today, the best strategy would be to divide HR offices between the administrative staff and a newly created advisory consulting team (or alternatively, make the consulting team a separate office). That applies to the Office of Personnel Management as well. It is essential that HR advisory teams have the credibility to lead the planning and work with managers to maximize performance.

Holding Managers Accountable

The President’s EO requires agencies to include a timeline for training all Senior Executive Service, supervisors, managers, team leads, and others in performance management. That’s essential if the goal is to improve performance.  

Data collected through the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey suggest employees (roughly 70 percent) are comfortable with their supervisor but on questions related to effective performance management, the scores are among the lowest. With reorganization and the elimination of management layers, managers will have to rethink their approach to supervision. For many it could be a rough transition.

But more manager training is not by itself the solution. There is widespread recognition that the Senior Executive Service needs reform. Reform should extend to the selection, development and career advancement of managers and supervisors. The systems for evaluating and rewarding performance need to be more demanding.

The bottom line is that executives, managers and supervisors need to be accountable for the performance of the employees they lead. Those who prove to be effective should be rewarded; those who are not should be moved to non-supervisory roles.

This is the first of two columns focused on President Trump’s executive order on government reorganization.

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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