Political appointees not managing for results, scholar says

Despite legislative and executive branch efforts to emphasize results, a new report from the IBM Center for the Business of Government says political appointees still don't focus enough on performance goals and measures.

The report presents itself as a guide to appointees hesitant to embrace results-oriented legislation, such as the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act. "No one has publicly called into account political appointees," author Chris Wye said Monday. "Everyone is saying [GPRA] will work when program managers use it, but who tells program managers what to do? It's the political appointees," he added.

Wye based his research on his experience as director of the National Academy of Public Administration's Performance Consortium, which holds workshops and forums for career civil servants and others in federal agencies. "That's why I have a sense of what happens. These are things that I heard in statements made by members of a consortium who were repeating what they heard from appointees," he said. Wye also spent 20 years working in the federal government.

"Everyone… who has assessed programs under GPRA has come to the conclusion that top leaders, by and large, do not take it as seriously as they should," he notes in the report. That attitude initiates a trickle-down effect that causes other program managers to similarly brush aside performance goals, says the report.

Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank that studies government management, said the report is right on target. "Political appointees see performance management as a career issue and not a policy issue-when, in fact, it speaks to the policy issues of an administration," he said, adding that "without political appointee engagement, it sends an awful signal that performance doesn't matter."

In the report, each section, which briefly outlines a negative reaction to GPRA and then offers possible responses, leads with a statement overheard by one of the members of Wye's consortium, such as, "I never have what I need" and "Performance management is a fad."

Wye provides suggestions for general ways of conceptualizing GPRA, as well as specific recommendations. "A management initiative that emphasizes goals, measures of performance and results can't be all bad; if nothing else, it is the law. It is hard to see how this kind of focus, effectively led and managed, can do anything but help political leaders to accomplish their goals," he writes.

Kevin Simpson, executive vice president at the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, and former political appointee in the Housing and Urban Development Department, said political appointees also can learn from the private sector. "You have to learn everything about that business line, who your people are… assemble a team, outline a vision," he said. "That's management," whether in the private or public sector, he added.

While appointees may face pressure from more stakeholders and have more complex goals than their private sector counterparts, Simpson said, "If a new appointee takes the time to see how their agency defines progress towards strategic goals, there are plenty of measures that make sense and that they can have an impact on."

Wye recommended that new leaders read Government Accountability Office reports to learn the language of performance measurements, create focus groups of citizens back home, implement incentives for team progress, and create anonymous hotlines for employees to suggest ideas.

Appointees also have to stop dismissing government employees as "bureaucrats," said Wye. "They aren't your enemy; they're the people who work for you."

In March, GAO released a report citing "inconsistent top leadership commitment" to GPRA and the principle of managing for results at agencies and OMB. It recommended that OMB strengthen its GPRA oversight and that President Bush implement a governmentwide strategic plan.

Still, the GAO report and Wye both acknowledged that progress has been made. "Six years ago, when GPRA came out, political appointees didn't even know what the act was. They mispronounced the acronym and didn't know what the requirements are," said Wye. Now, he added, they know the requirements and take them seriously, but still need to encourage managers to integrate the act into their daily work.

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