Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

High Performance Is Not a Secret


Jay Williams, the new assistant secretary at the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration, knows what it’s like to turn around an agency with dissatisfied workers. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

Williams’ recent interview with The Washington Post interview reminded me of my experience late in the Clinton administration as a consultant to the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, which was new at the time. The agency was formed from the District of Columbia’s adult probation and parole functions along with the Pretrial Services Agency. It remains a small agency of 1,200 employees. Court supervision officers spend their days in ongoing contact with individuals who have broken the law. Their successes are ignored by the media; failures (repeat violations by offenders) can be headlines. It was a couple of high-profile failures that prompted Congress to create the agency.

It may be an overstatement, but the Court Services and Offender Supervision offices were close to nonfunctional as part of D.C. government. The core job involved checking off boxes confirming a monthly meeting with each offender. It was largely perfunctory and achieved very little. At the transition its reputation could only improve.

But the agency turned around, and its new direction should be credited to the leadership of its first director, Jay Carver. He was a true visionary. Carver’s plans included a much more proactive role for CSOs, which involved going into neighborhoods. He convinced staff members that they could accomplish difficult, stretch goals. A primary goal was to reduce the rate of recidivism—which was off the charts—by 50 percent in five years. There was a shared can-do commitment to making the new agency a success.

Today, of course, is a different era. Normally government starts with an advantage—for many civil servants the opportunity for public service was instrumental in their career choice. Pay freezes and budget cuts, however, have taken a toll. Job satisfaction is at an all-time low. It’s clear that salary increases are not going to match those in the private sector. But that should not prevent agencies from initiating the changes to create workplaces where employees look forward to tackling daily challenges.

We know how to create a high-performance workplace. That was the subject of a book I published 20 years ago. Since then there have been countless books and articles. A recent Google search on “high-performance organizations” produced 9.5 million hits.

Obviously, the breakthroughs in technology play an important role. Technology, however, is only a tool to support improved management. PerformanceStat, for example, has been described as a “leadership strategy” by its chief advocate, Robert Behn of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Technology helps to track data that is useful in meetings about performance. The focus on performance measurement first emerged in government 20 years ago.

Nothing truly new has been introduced for years. Research has confirmed employees are capable of performing at significantly higher levels. One study showed performance gains of at least 30 percent to 40 percent are possible. The policies and practices that encourage and support high performance are well-documented and available to government.

Individuals who have opportunities to use all their capabilities and perform at their best also love their jobs. In the right environment they will work long hours, go home exhausted but look forward to returning the next day. Equally important is that their lives are enriched by the experience. Job satisfaction is highly correlated with life satisfaction. For employees who realize satisfaction at work, their home and leisure activities (e.g., socializing, relaxing, exercising, family relations) are much more satisfying. All of which is to suggest families benefit as well.

Unfortunately, the prospect of seeing the changes associated with high performance workplaces is a fantasy for too many federal employees. Rose-colored glasses are needed to even read columns like this. The civil service system is an acknowledged barrier to meaningful change. The continuing deadlock in Congress is an added barrier.

That should not preclude change initiatives, however. It starts with leadership and a vision of what an organization can achieve. Jay Williams’ comments suggest that he understands that. As in the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, leaders are accountable for securing the staff’s commitment. They should be passionate advocates for their organization and the importance of its mission. They are the catalyst to imbue a shared understanding among managers that employees are valued assets. That is a consistent theme in every discussion of the “best companies to work for.”

The importance of the workforce is very evident in knowledge organizations as well as in service organizations. In health care, for example, every hospital relies on similar protocols and has essentially the same technology, but only a few are recognized for their excellence. The common thread across successful organizations is that the people and the people-management practices make the difference. That is clearly true for government agencies.

There is an unfortunate predisposition in government to assume that people-management issues are HR problems. Realistically, chief human capital officers are on the sidelines. Experience with high performance highlights four central issues—trust, communication, empowerment and recognition. The reality is that federal agencies get low scores on those issues in employee surveys—and the scores are dropping. CHCOs can take the lead in pushing for change, but these are management issues.

A good first step is to bring employees together in focus groups and simply ask, “What changes would enable you to be more productive?” The experience with reengineering in the early 1990s confirms that employees have great ideas. My experience with self-managed teams has shown that they want opportunities to prove their value and contribute to their employer’s success. Trust, the sense of empowerment and recognition will build over time.

In the Washington Post interview, Williams said he plans “to create a situation where people feel empowered and appreciated.” Every federal employee should have the opportunity to work where that’s true. That does not require congressional action or even White House approval. I’ve watched the transformation unfold. Everybody wins.

Howard Risher managed compensation consulting practices for two national firms and has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D. from the Wharton School.

(Image via 6kor3dos/

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.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec