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Federal Managers Should Learn From Denver’s ‘Peak Performance’ Program

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It should not have been surprising when the House unanimously passed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (H.R. 4174) earlier this month. The goal, as Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., noted in remarks aimed at encouraging the Senate to pass the bill, is “to make sure federal policies are driven by data, based on evidence.” The use of data and analytics has been “elevated to the status of motherhood and apple pie,” to borrow a line from Linda Springer in a recent column.

To achieve the goal, however, agencies will need to do more than just develop an analytics plan and designate someone for a newly-created position of Chief Evaluation Officer, steps required by the bill. This is not the first time a special position has been proposed to improve performance. A decade ago, the answer was the Performance Improvement Officer. When you compare the two jobs and the goals at their creation, there is a high level of deja vu.  

Government’s repeated efforts to improve agency performance go back over three decades but the evidence shows each iteration has been disappointing. Realizing success with the evidence-based policy goals could be even more difficult. Predictive analytics can be a powerful tool to gain insight into problems but it depends on statistical analyses that leaders as well as the individuals involved in implementation may not understand.  

The performance gains, however, are unlikely to be realized in the foreseeable future. It will take time to build the capability in each agency, complete the analyses, convince leaders change is needed, finalize plans, and then resolve the problems associated with change as new strategies are implemented.

There is an alternative that does not require legislation or special funding and could produce gains in every agency. The idea is a program created by Denver’s city government, called Peak Performance. The program was highlighted recently when Mayor Michael Hancock was a guest on “CBS This Morning.” It’s not new, but the strategy seems to have been ignored by federal agencies.

When Mayor Hancock was elected in 2011, the city had an $80 million budget deficit. Its workforce had been through several rounds of cuts and furloughs. Morale was low. City leaders started the Peak Academy as a training and coaching program to prepare employees to take responsibility for projects to improve city operations. As former academy director Brian Elms discussed in the book Peak Performance, the city trained 5,000 employees in four years, which resulted in 2,200 employee-driven innovations that have generated savings of more than $25 million. Elms recently resigned and is now “traveling all over the country teaching governments how to create peak academies.”

But the former director also acknowledges that when they started, they had mixed success. Where they were not invited by agency leaders, they often failed miserably. That is very similar to the experience of federal PIOs, as reported were surveyed a few years ago. When leaders do not prioritize change, the result will be disappointing, if not failure.

When performance improvement is a priority the results are often impressive. No one knows the day-to-day problems affecting performance better than front line employees.

Interestingly, H.R. 4174 requires each agency to develop an “evidence-building plan” after the agency head consults with virtually everyone: the public, the chief data officer, PIOs, program administrators, congressional committees—everyone but employees, that is. Instead, government is going to create another specialized office.  

In business, employees have been involved in performance improvement initiatives as far back as the 1980s. W. Edwards Deming, the quality management guru, argued for relying on front line workers to address quality problems. Employees also played a role in reengineering and process improvement projects starting in the early 1990s, and employee empowerment gained prominence later in that decade.  Today, employees in other sectors commonly see their manager only occasionally, relying on technology to stay in touch and track results. Government is stuck in the past.

Denver’s track record confirms employees across the full range of government operations are fully capable of identifying changes that promise to improve program effectiveness, increase productivity and reduce costs. Projects fall into three categories:

  1. Projects based on widely used comparative metrics. In human resources, to illustrate, there is a long list of accepted metrics: time to fill job vacancies, number of grievances, supervisor satisfaction with HR, etc.  A strategy to improve the HR function might be based on comparisons with other agencies or over time.
  2. Projects based on process improvement. These may be based, for example, on lean techniques or benchmarking. Denver provides training in these methods to help in developing solid improvement plans.
  3. Projects based on replacing current “broken” processes. Here there may be a need to involve outside experts but the employees who will be responsible for managing a replacement process should play a role in planning and implementation.  

The Denver approach is based on decentralized innovation. Employees who see a problem know they are expected to develop a plan to solve it. Success stories across the city encourage employees to plan new projects. That is now entrenched in the city’s workforce culture.

Denver’s policy, as stated by former director Elms, is:  

“We encourage employees to only improve what they have control over. So, if you control a form . . . make it the best form in the country. If you control the website, make it the best website in the world. We believe that many small, simple improvements make a dramatic difference in your service delivery.”

“Quick and Easy Kaizen” refers to continuous improvement based on many small process changes. It encourages everyone to make small improvements that are within their power to implement.

To start, leaders need to make the strategy an organizational priority. The strategy could be adopted by every federal agency and at any level. Success stories should be publicized. Recognition and rewards would confirm the importance of efforts to improve performance.

Marc D. Berson is the chair-elect of the American Society of Quality’s Government Division. He is also the president of Practical Management Envisioneering LLC. Mr. Berson has over 30 years experience supporting federal, state and local governments as a program director, practitioner, advisor and instructor for performance measurement and improvement; metrics development; quality assurance; organizational efficiency; workforce planning, analysis and modeling; and acquisition. Mr. Berson is a certified Six Sigma Black Belt (CSSBB) and Project Management Professional (PMP). He has a Masters of Engineering Administration from Virginia Tech and a BS in Commerce and Engineering from Drexel University. He can be contacted at marc.berson@practical-me.com.

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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