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The Positive Approach to Government’s Performance Problems

Robert Kneschke/

The evidence is mounting. Government performance has been adversely affected by budget cuts and deteriorating morale. The University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index for federal services has fallen for the second straight year. The overall score is now 64. For comparison, the U.S. Postal Service index is 72 and hospitals scored 76. Defense was the single federal agency that scored higher than 70. Only Internet service providers at 63 was lower than government. As customer satisfaction declines, voter support for government declines.

If there were other governmentwide performance measures (e.g., absenteeism, grievances, etc.), it’s more than likely the data would show a similar decline. A number of potentially more costly performance problems have been in the headlines recently. That should be expected when morale deteriorates.

To borrow a phrase from a recent headline, this is not a “carrot-and-stick” problem, especially since the carrot is significantly smaller than a few years ago. In the business world the motivational power of competing combined with the prospect of significant financial rewards can induce employees to tolerate ineffective management practices. Government is different, of course. In the current environment, government agencies need a different work management strategy.

Organizations need workers who come to work each day, put in their time, perform as expected and stay out of trouble. Every organization has employees like that. That is consistent with traditional civil service thinking. Workers are cogs and the job of managers is to keep the machine operating. The carrot-and-stick approach fits that environment, although the unstated purpose is worker control.

But today’s successful knowledge organizations are very different. Nothing is more important than tapping the knowledge and skills of employees, unleashing out-of-the-box thinking. That requires a trusting work environment where workers feel empowered to apply their knowledge. That is consistent with the emerging understanding of healthy organizations and the lessons learned by researchers in the new field of positive psychology.

The origins of the field can be traced to a psychologist everyone remembers from college, Abraham Maslow. But the person credited with the establishing the field of positive psychology is Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania. He made it the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association in 1998. Interest in the field grew rapidly. The first international conference took place in 2002. Today the theories influence practitioners in fields as disparate as child development, offender rehabilitation and the work place.

The growing interest led to several academic centers linked to business schools including the Center for Positive Organizations at Michigan and the Center for Healthy Workplaces at Berkeley. There are also a number of books. An Amazon search for books on organizational health found over 5,000.

The reason for the interest is important to government. It’s captured by a statement on the website of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence: “A psychologically healthy workplace fosters employee health and well-being while enhancing organizational performance and productivity. The website summarizes the benefits to an organization:

  • Improved quality, performance and productivity
  • Reduced absenteeism and turnover
  • Fewer accidents and injuries
  • Better ability to attract and retain top-quality employees
  • Improved customer service and satisfaction
  • Lower health care costs

Yes, healthy organizations perform better. It is central to the workforce strategies of companies like Starbucks and Southwest Airlines.

The APA has five categories of psychologically healthy workplace practices:

  • Employee involvement in decision-making
  • Work-life balance
  • Employee growth and development
  • Health and safety
  • Employee recognition

Communications is important as the foundation for all healthy workplace practices. Employees want to know what they can expect and what’s expected of them. They also feel more involved when they are kept abreast of developments and emerging problems. Communicating and recognizing accomplishments enhances employee commitment. The APA website makes a wealth of information available.

The practices associated with the list are important to government for four reasons: (1) they can be adopted at minimal or no added cost, (2) they can be adopted at any level including by individual managers, (3) they will enhance the brand of government, reduce turnover and enhance recruiting, and (4) as they are incorporated into day-to-day management, performance will improve.

To highlight an important point—nothing on the list is precluded by the civil service system.

The APA website fails, however, to emphasize an issue that Gallup and other researchers have identified as a key to employee commitment and high performance—effective supervision. That’s unfortunately an issue that government has ignored. A supervisor’s impact is far greater than any carrot-and-stick policy. Effective supervisors can create a positive work environment in an otherwise unhealthy organization.

In my years of consulting, I have heard story after story about individuals as well as work groups that responded positively to changes in work management practices. The most recalcitrant or uncooperative employee can become a highly productive employee in a healthy work environment. Now is the time for government to seize this win-win opportunity for agencies, employees and the public.

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 Robert Kneschke/

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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