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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Metrics That Matter

During its nearly eight-year existence, the Chief Human Capital Officers Council has become an influential voice in resolving government's most complex human resources challenges. And council members are facing their toughest task yet as they develop recommendations for updating performance ratings and management systems for federal employees.

Two of the lowest opinions in the Office of Personnel Management's 2010 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey dealt with performance and pay. Only 30.8 percent of respondents answered "positive" to the statement: "In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve." Even fewer, 26.3 percent, responded "positive" to the following: "Pay raises depend on how well employees perform their jobs."

The council's recommendations for improving the performance management system will no doubt interest a variety of stakeholders, including the Obama administration, Congress, and management and employee organizations. But wholesale changes will be difficult to implement. The council must strike a delicate balance by identifying progressive solutions framed by the practical reality of aligning multiple priorities.

One way to address this complex issue is to peel back the layers of the onion one at a time. That involves a phased implementation strategy containing short, medium and long-range objectives. The recommendations should range from simple guidance and training for managers and employees to legislative and regulatory updates required for broad, systemic change.

In the near term, the council should establish a set of guiding principles outlining the way performance standards are defined, tracked and reported. These principles would help managers, supervisors and employees develop metrics for quality, quantity, time and cost.

Here are a few lessons from both the private and public sectors that can provide a starting point:

  • Involve both supervisors and their staff. Employees are intimately familiar with their jobs and can identify the most important measures of success. At the same time, supervisors use their broad perspectives to make sure the work an employee is doing is aligned with the organization's goals and is consistent with the expectations of other employees. Both sides of the coin are absolutely critical to effective performance management.
  • Measure what matters. Setting too many metrics can cause distraction, but setting too few can cause ambiguity. Supervisors and employees should identify only the top three or four metrics for each performance objective. This can focus employees' attention on the most critical parts of their jobs while avoiding the administrative burden of tracking a multitude of meaningless data.
  • Include both measures and targets. Measures are the mechanism by which a supervisor knows something was done. Targets establish the supervisor's expectation for that measure. Both are necessary to fully define and track expectations. Take the administration's new hiring guidelines, for example. An agency's human resources director could expect the new process to reduce the hiring time by five to 10 days (the target) and then compare last year's cycle times against the current year (the measure) to determine that progress was made.
  • Don't reinvent the wheel. Established operating procedures and policies can provide excellent qualitative measures. Instead of rewriting exact targets from these documents into performance standards, cite the document itself. That way, when something changes with the policy, the performance standards are still valid.

The best metrics alone won't automatically create a high-performance culture. Supervisors and managers also must be leaders who create a vision for their employees, have meaningful dialogues about the quality of their work throughout the year, take time to recognize high achievement, and have the difficult conversations that are necessary to address poor performance.

These simple, yet critical, principles provide the foundation for broad, long-term performance management reform across government. It will take time, energy, and creativity from the Chief Human Capital Officers Council to outline a bold strategy grounded in reality.

John Salamone, former executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, is managing consultant at Federal Management Partners Inc. Stacy Cook is a senior consultant at FMP who specializes in performance management and adult learning.

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