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Imperfect Performance

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During a recent trip to China, I visited a Tsinghua University classroom in Beijing to observe some graduate students in the school's international development program. But soon after settling into my seat at the back of the room, the students turned the tables and began asking me questions.

Specifically, they wanted to know how the U.S. government handles performance management. Most of the students are from Asian and African countries that look to China as a key driver of economic growth. But it was the United States they were interested in when it came to measuring the effectiveness of government.

I was obliged to tell them that, for all the combined efforts of public and private sector leaders, a library's-worth of studies and measurement tools, and many attempts to measure performance and to base compensation on those results, the U.S. government is still pretty bollixed up when it comes to evaluating itself and its employees.

A quick review of a few weeks' worth of stories from Government Executive illustrated how endemic the confusion over performance measurement is. For instance, in the past two weeks, advocates debated the role of politics in setting priorities and the grappling with budgets, Transportation Security Administrator Kip Hawley acknowledged that the agency's pay-for-performance system was sinking under the weight of its own complexity, and workforce planners and union leaders discussed whether inspiring extra effort or ensuring fairness should be the primary goal of a performance review and pay system.

The announcement last week that the National Nuclear Security Administration will launch pay for performance will do precisely nothing to help government leaders out of this compensation quagmire. If the program at NNSA succeeds, other agencies and departments likely will argue that the small agency's approach isn't scalable, or that the workforce profile is unique. If it fails, there will be a wide range of explanations for that failure. What is certain in any debate over performance measurement is there are no easy answers or simple blueprints.

None of this should come as a surprise to readers of this column. The National Security Personnel System alone provides a lifetime of cautionary tales about the difficulty of getting measurement and reward right, and the effect on employee morale and trust in managers when those programs fail.

But the Tsinghua students' questions were a reminder of how surprising -- and problematic -- it is that no one has really figured out how to measure government performance.

Government effectiveness isn't the only thing at stake. As one African student said, having a government that works lends credibility to other sectors of society. Until governments in developing countries can prove that their regulatory systems are strong and fair, the student pointed out, international investors may not -- and should not -- trust the businesses that they regulate.

The students couldn't come up with a solution either. I listened in on a group exercise to design a performance measurement system for a community center. Students tossed around ideas, including devising a customer service satisfaction survey, tracking the popularity of items in the center's food bank, and monitoring electricity records to see which facilities received the greatest use. None of the participants suggested evaluating the center's employees or surveying them on job satisfaction.

Perhaps in spite of its flawed programs, opposition and a lack of information, the U.S. government is ahead of the curve after all when it comes to performance management. No one may know precisely how to measure federal employees' job performance, but at least workforce planners and agency heads in this country know that it's a central issue.

 
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