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

Overcoming the Strategy Execution Gap


Government’s workforce is uniquely well educated. Over 50 percent of the white-collar workforce has earned at least a bachelor’s degree. In the U.S. population, only 30 percent are college graduates.  Agencies employ more than 35,000 practicing lawyers, 90,000 scientists and 105,000 engineers. Many have worked for years at the forefront of their professional field. The breadth of their collective knowledge is unrivaled in the world. There are very few operational problems a team of federal experts couldn’t solve.

Nonetheless, leaders too often are not open to employees’ ideas for improving performance. That’s reinforced every time government reform initiatives are planned. The latest example: Congress overlooked the workforce in drafting the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (H.R. 4174), which focuses on the central importance of expertise in evaluating federal programs. The bill requires agencies to develop “a systematic plan for identifying and addressing policy questions relevant to the programs, policies, and regulations of the agency.”  

The bill also creates in each agency another specialist, chief evaluation officer, who presumably will have an office close to the chief data officer and the performance improvement officer. In addition, agencies need to designate a “statistical official” to advise on data analysis. It’s time to organize these jobs along with finance and human resources as a deputy secretary for management.

The employees now responsible for those programs—who have by far the best understanding of the programs—are not mentioned. They inevitably know if programs are meeting stated goals as well as ideas for improving the results of the programs. Unfortunately, they are an underappreciated resource.

The bill is important of course; government needs to make better use of metrics. It remains to be seen if adding another high-level staff position and requiring increased reporting will solve that problem.

Understanding the Gap

The likelihood the bill will result in more effective programs ignores a common problem in all organizations: the strategy execution gap. It’s been the subject of several books. Even the best managed companies frequently are unable to translate their business plans into day to day operations. The fact that corporate leaders, with the prospect of lucrative financial rewards for success, find it difficult to close the gap should make it clear that enacting the bill is only the first step.

The core problem is that execution involves change. When programs or policies are not satisfactory, decisions are needed, goals and operating plans reconsidered, job responsibilities redefined, resources reallocated. Managers and employees who have to shift gears need to be convinced. For them, the changes are disruptive and the solution untested. The perennial question is, “What’s in it for me?”

The buzzword today is “agile.” John Kamensky defined that recently as “the ability to act quickly and easily.” He acknowledges that government has a notoriously difficult time adapting and follows with a series of steps that he contends will overcome the problems.

Perhaps the most telling comment, however, was in response to his column:

“Agile? I made a simple suggestion 11 months ago that employees take an extra 30 seconds per shift and post a product on an additional website to enhance customer service and outreach.

Since then...

1. Arguments over whether it is really necessary to reach those customers daily and if we should replace other services because of it.

2. Union review of a change in working conditions.

3. A complete revamping of shift schedules and duties to accommodate the new workload (can’t make this one up)!

These days when suggestions are requested I keep my mouth shut. This is all true a simple suggestion has turned into paralysis by analysis!

Yeah we can be agile, LMAO!”

That might be somewhat exaggerated, but change has proven to be challenging for even the best managed organizations. The comment aptly describes government’s problem.

Bridging the Gap

Research confirms the reasons for resistance should be anticipated and answers developed. The track record suggests that when employees are not involved in program assessments, they are skeptical. Trust is an issue. Employees’ concerns need to be understood.

Research also confirms that change needs a trusted champion who has the backing of agency leaders.  Employees need to believe that proposed program changes will produce better results.

The best strategy is simply to involve employees in both the assessment and the execution. In the end they have to make it work.

Reinforcing Management’s Commitment

A proven strategy from other sectors to encourage buy-in and support for change initiatives is linking rewards to successful change. Employees need to understand it’s to their benefit. Introducing incentives reinforces that message. Incentives do not have to be lucrative to be effective, especially in government.

The website Glassdoor shows average bonus awards for federal employees below the Senior Executive Service as ranging from roughly $750 to $2,500. Those awards are modest, but the amounts would contribute to a happier holiday or a summer vacation, and recognize a job well done.

Incentives have critics; the stories of poorly planned incentives make headlines. But incentives in a variety of forms are ubiquitous outside of government. That would not be true if they were problematic. If anything is poorly planned, it’s the use of purely subjective bonus awards.

Incentives could play an important role in transforming government. Employed appropriately, they facilitate successful change. The dollar outlay will be far less than the cost of failed initiatives.  

Commit to Annual Reviews

Programs should be subject to annual reviews. That’s true for any policy, practice or program linked to an agency’s mission, including HR practices since they influence employee engagement. Years ago, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency proved that’s a winning strategy.

When reviews are routine, small, frequent changes—continuous improvement—are much easier to accommodate. Plus, each improvement enhances employee satisfaction.

This is unlikely to happen without a champion. HR should serve as an advocate working with line managers. This is tapping employee capabilities as a resource. HR can also develop training for employees on the use of metrics and process improvement methods. If employee involvement hits a rough spot, HR can be the conciliator. Performance gains should be celebrated.

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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