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

Getting Serious About Employee Performance


President Trump recently stated, “Our moral duty to the taxpayer requires us to make our government leaner and more accountable. We must do a lot more with less.” Over time new technology will undoubtedly play an important role in this, but with budget cuts, the hiring freeze and planned workforce attrition, the “more with less” focus for the immediate future will depend on the workforce.

Employees have the capacity to perform at significantly higher levels than is common in traditional organizations. In the 1990s when the idea of empowerment was first introduced and knowledge jobs became important, there were frequent media reports of companies that adopted new work management practices and realized significantly higher performance levels. One study found gains of 30 to 40 percent.

The story of successful entrepreneurs is also on point. Books have been written about people who started with very little and built business empires or became superstars in their field. Presidents Johnson, Reagan and Clinton are recent examples in politics.

As a wise old consultant told me years ago, “It’s not how long you work, it’s how good you work.”  Yes, people who love what they do often work long hours. However, requiring people formally or informally to work overtime is not a solution to performance problems. High performance is not about long hours. 

It’s also not about threats. That should go without saying, but the prospect of adverse actions appears all too frequently in media reports.  Threats may gain near term compliance—employees work to the rule—but it intensifies and broadens resistance.

High performance follows from creating a positive work environment, supporting employee development, and empowering people to tackle problems. Mutual respect and trust are essential along with reward practices that reinforce good performance. 

Unfortunately, many employees have jobs where factors beyond their control constrain their performance. In government, civil service regulations are a barrier to effective talent management. Job descriptions delimit what employees can do. Supervisors maintain tight control. The actions and statements of leaders undermine morale.  Risk avoidance dominates the federal culture. The list goes on.

Realistically the practices known to contribute to high performance in the business world do not fit easily in the civil service environment. In the absence of legislation, government is severely limited in the possible strategies to improve performance. 

The answer over the past decade or so has been increased attention to employee engagement, a construct like love and beauty that does not have a solid definition. The idea is intuitively valid: an employee who is “fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about their work” (to quote Wikipedia) can be expected to perform better. Gallup’s research extending over two decades confirms that’s true across a series of metrics like productivity, safety, and absenteeism relevant in every sector.

But a problem is that every “expert” has a somewhat different approach. Gallup, for example, focuses its survey questions on an employee’s supervisor. The Office of Personnel Management, in contrast, adds questions related to work-life balance, the merit system principles, and collaborative management.  Gallup highlights the cost of “actively disengaged” employees while OPM is silent on the possibility that federal employees might be “unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to coworkers,” as Gallup phrases it. 

OPM no doubt has a reason for its approach but a key point is that engaged and actively disengaged employees exist in every organization. Everyone knows who among their co-workers is actively disengaged; they stand out. Currently there is no easy remedy. Again, it’s the civil service system.

All of the studies of engagement, however, ignore a key issue now relevant in federal agencies: Leaders and their agendas matter. OPM’s approach to assessing engagement emphasizes employee views of agency leaders. But reports of resistance have recently surfaced. Whoever is eventually named as OPM’s director will have to decide if the “Leaders Lead” questions need to be reconsidered.

At some point government needs to refocus on the basics. Regardless of how agency missions are redefined, agency performance and therefore workforce performance, will continue to be a high priority. However, current federal management practices make compliance and risk avoidance more important than improved performance.

The basics start with recruiting highly qualified workers. Even before the election, government’s recruiting and selection process was under fire. There was a time when government attracted “the best and the brightest” but government’s brand as an employer has been badly damaged, possibly for an entire generation of graduates. Some jobs may be nonessential but the brand is a deterrent to staffing in all fields. Government’s increasingly complex problems make it essential to attract well qualified talent.

Another basic is performance management. Government’s performance management systems are known to be weak, but that’s an understatement. Even the best qualified workers need feedback and coaching to raise their performance level. The importance of effective coaching shifts the focus from the appraisal form and the dreaded year-end reviews to the day-to-day role of managers. Preparing managers should now be the priority, with the goal of getting the best from everyone. The fixation on dealing with the few poor performers is not helpful.

Pay is a core issue, of course. While research shows that pay is less important for those who chose public service, everyone wants to feel they are treated fairly. At this point, there may be no one who believes the General Schedule system is fair or serving government’s needs. Several states now have pay programs that serve as new models for the federal government.

Possibly most important, however, is being able to redefine organizations and jobs, and move employees to new roles as conditions change. Hierarchical, rigid organizations are dinosaurs that are slow to respond, bureaucratic and costly. Eliminating layers of management and empowering employees would open the door to higher engagement and improved performance. Again, the civil service system is the problem.

Government has gone far too long with virtually no change in the way work is organized and managed. In organizations that embrace best practices, Gallup surveys show typically 70 percent of employees are engaged. For the federal government, the comparable percentage is 27 percent. That’s lower than the private sector average. Gallup estimates federal employees who are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” cost the country $18 billion. Reducing the cost is clearly important but even more important is creating a work environment where employees are challenged and motivated to perform at their best. Everyone would benefit.

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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