The Performance Opportunity in the Budget Crisis

LandOfSmile/Shutterstock.com

Posted next to the agency goals on the Performance.gov website are photos of the “goal leaders,” or managers tapped as responsible for program progress, said Dustin Brown, deputy assistant director for performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget.

“When the deputy secretary names the leaders and sends us a photo, it builds in accountability -- not just for narrative descriptions but for metrics and milestones and quarterly updates,” Brown told attendees at a Government Executive Media Group town hall meeting Tuesday. Too much worry about missing the target inhibits the effort, but it is important to know why the target is missed and have a plan to deal with it, he said. Such discipline is “not always a part of our culture, but all high-performance organizations have it.”

OMB’s acting top performance specialist spoke to agency employees at the session, which focused on budgets and performance management. He and Angela Bailey, associate director for employee services and chief human capital officer at the Office of Personnel Management, agreed that the current budget crunch presents an opportunity to “turn weakness into strength” by aligning budget goals with performance metrics and using technology to better track program performance.

“Every crisis is an opportunity, and after some initial shock and saying `woe is me,’ then you buckle down and say, ‘we can manage our way through this,’” said Bailey, now in her 32nd year in government. The difference between today’s climate and past downsizings, she said, is that people now see that “the only way to get out of it is to leverage each other, collaborate within and across agencies, to pull together,” she said. “When things are going well, it’s easier to stay in our stovepipe areas. We don’t necessarily do more with less, we do less with less,” she added. “But something has to give, whether hiring less or take on whole programs, we can deliver on promises to the American people.”

OPM used to spend thousands of dollars on a huge job fair at the Washington Convention Center, Bailey noted, but now much recruiting and training can be done virtually, through webcasts, Skype, Adobe and FaceTime. “But I worry about the social fabric of work and the human culture of people getting together,” she added, praising the value of “Post-It notes and magic markers” as well as the “backs of envelopes” for generating ideas.

As a demonstration of federal employees’ enterprise and creativity, she described an OPM event from last summer called “Fed Due Day.” Modeled on private-sector practices of Google and Fed-Ex, it involved giving rank-and-file workers four hours away from supervisors to brainstorm on ideas for improvements. Those offering suggestions would then present and seek to “sell” them to senior leaders in the manner of the television show “Shark Tank.” The result “is not T-ball where everyone gets a trophy,” Bailey said. But some “cool ideas” emerged, including teaming up with the Paralyzed Veterans of America’s paralympic games to help hire veterans and creation of a database of skills needed in government. “The ideas get built into performance and come together without spending a dime.”

In working with the interagency Performance Improvement Council, OMB is conducting daily phone calls and rolling out new tools to find practical ways to implement performance goals and accountability, Brown said. What’s most important is “getting leaders engaged and keeping them engaged” so that they spend time on the discipline all year, he said.

The Obama administration seeks to “put in a management framework that can survive this budget climate and different administrations,” which is what is called for in the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act.

When agencies achieve successes—whether it’s the State Department reducing visa processing time, the Interior Department curbing crime on Indian reservations or the Veterans Affairs Department collaborating with Housing and Urban Development to reduce veteran homelessness—“it puts a little peer pressure on other agencies,” Brown said. “It inspires a chain reaction.”

Bailey brushed aside concerns about a retirement spike. “Retirement is a very personal decision, not always based on the economy,” she said. “Someone could be going through their third divorce and have young kids and older kids in college.” What’s more important “is the idea of workforce planning and succession management.”

Brown himself was furloughed on Monday. “Sequestration is being felt across the country, and the administration had made clear its desire to repeal with its fiscal 14 budget and replace it with more balanced plan,” he said.

Bailey said, “We’re not out there publicly telling everything, but things are going on behind scenes to deal with sequestration as we come together and prioritize.”

(Image via LandOfSmile/Shutterstock.com)

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