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

Needed: A Commitment to Effective Performance Management


Several recent columns highlight how difficult and complex it will be for agencies to realize the Administration’s goals for “reforming the federal government and reducing the federal civilian workforce.” The stated objectives, starting with “create a lean, accountable, more efficient government,” essentially boil down to this: doing more with less.  

The core problem is that government is not staffed and managed by individuals who were expected to develop the skills essential to facilitate and lead organizational change. It starts with micromanagement (see “Micromanagement is Really a Trust Issue”) that flows from a habit of selecting supervisors based on technical skills and seniority. In “Wanted: Good Leaders For Government. Must Have People, Not Just Technical, Skills,” author Michael Cole argues that “technically competent leaders may set outstanding goals [that due to their management style prove] to be unachievable ones.”

In explaining the problem, Cole refers to an interview of Mike Mears, a former CIA executive, that was published in the Gallup Business Journal. Mears made a critical point:

“Though the U.S. government has world-class leaders and managers, its management framework resembles that of the factories of a century or more ago. That sort of structure was designed to handle tasks typical of mass production, such as administering work orders and overseeing repetitive tasks. But it isn't necessarily suited to today's knowledge-driven, service-oriented economy, which demands nimbleness and innovation.”

Mears argues that “government workers are among the most driven, mission-oriented and intelligent employees in America, but too often their hands are tied by a bureaucracy . . . that was set up to administer things, not to lead and manage.”

The problem is compounded by the entrenched belief that government needs centralized people management policies and practices. Maybe that made sense when agencies “administered things” but today it’s far more realistic and practical to recognize that government is a highly diversified conglomerate. Agency operations and workforce problems are far more diverse than those of any corporation.

The problem is not one that can be addressed with piecemeal answers. And it cannot be addressed by all-hands labor-management committees. It’s not a problem that union leaders can solve. Nor is it one that HR offices can solve.

As a suggestion, it could be addressed as a product of the recently announced Volcker Alliance/Partnership for Public Service initiative: Renewing America’s Civil Service. The best practices for managing performance are documented in books and articles. A framework for more effective workforce management would logically include performance management.

The foundation is in place. Both the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act and the 2010 GPRA Modernization Act, along with the Performance Improvement Council, are important building blocks. But somehow the translation of agency goals to executive, manager and individual goals is still a work in progress. The many reports of the Government Accountability Agency document the progress and lessons learned.

Performance planning and management has to flow from the top; it requires leadership and senior management’s commitment. The supporting technology and metrics are essential but only as tools.  The process depends on managerial skills, and in government it’s not working as the planners envisioned. All the evidence suggests the problems start at the top. As one prominent individual recently commented in a private exchange, “Senior Executive Service performance management systems are terribly flawed.” The SES should be a model for effective management for lower level managers and supervisors.

Over the years, performance management and its components – leadership, accountability, goal setting, feedback, etc. – have been discussed in countless Government Executive columns. IBM’s John Kamensky has authored a number of them. One of John’s more recent columns, “Wanted: Competent Management,” goes back to the basics – the day-to-day practices of managers.

The column focuses on the conclusions from research that extends back more than a decade. I have used the research in my work and my writing. It’s led by Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor, and two colleagues, Raffella Sadun (Harvard) and John Van Reenen (MIT). They and colleagues have surveyed managers in more than 12,000 organizations in multiple sectors including healthcare and education. The latest report of their findings is in the current issue of Harvard Business Review in an article entitled, “Why Do We Undervalue Competent Management?

They note that competent management is not easy to replicate. It takes effort and investment, in both people and processes. The researchers also found that “management quality was significantly higher in organizations in which the CEOs dedicated a larger portion of their time to employees than to outside stakeholders.” That’s something agency leaders should consider.

As they argue, “the core management practices may appear to be relatively simple [but] they are not light switches that can flipped on and off at will. They require a profound commitment from the top, an understanding of the skills required, and – ultimately – a fundamental shift in mentality at levels of the organization.”

Manager training in those practices is of course of essential. An added step would be to study how leading corporations develop executives and managers. To achieve the reform objectives, agencies will need strategies to help managers transition to a supervisory style that supports and encourages employees to consider new approaches and make job-related decisions. The more effective managers need to be recognized and rewarded.

Civil service reform is important, but without management reform it’s unlikely to generate the expected results. We know how to make it happen but it will require a multi-year commitment.

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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