Cleaning Up Their Act
What happens when leaders take the time to improve performance.
Federal employees usually sign on with government agencies with the good-faith goal of serving the public. In return, the public wants and deserves high performance from civil servants. Yet both sides often feel frustrated by lack of focus and missed opportunities.
So how can citizens get what they pay for?
Creating a high-performing federal workforce that's able to achieve ever-increasing goals has been the subject of endless discussions, presidential initiatives and acts of Congress. President Bush attacked the issue with his President's Management Agenda, and increased the pressure by authorizing the Office of Management and Budget to measure agency programs with the aim of improving them every year.
But will agencies respond to these goals? What would have to change to make performance truly important?
For starters, the president would spend his most valuable commodity-time-working to achieve higher performance in the executive branch. For example, he could have quarterly Cabinet meetings to review agency results and share best practices. He would have to show by his actions how much he values not only policy creation-historically the focus of presidents and their appointees-but also implementation, or performance.
If appointees heard the president's message, they would work personally with career executives, managers, union leaders and employees to ensure clarity of mission; unite departments, Congress and beneficiaries in a common purpose; craft day-to-day values; specify program goals and link them with individual goals; and work systematically to improve overall performance.
Raising performance standards would not stop with political appointees. Many in the Senior Executive Service would spend more time leading and managing their workforce rather than serving as technical experts. Mid-level managers would focus on developing their staffs' knowledge and skills, engaging employees, and involving them in performance goals. Union leaders would work with executives and managers to address the business problems that inhibit performance. As a result, employees would understand their responsibilities and how they are evaluated.
If performance were important, then federal agencies would not rely on inefficient, hierarchical, control-focused organizational models. They would have flatter structures that foster the exchange of information, ideas and learning. The government workforce has changed during the past 50 years, from 70 percent clerical to 70 percent knowledge workers, but the executive branch has not revised its structures to maximize contributions of the knowledge workers it works so hard to hire.
If performance were important, then federal agencies would be investing time and money to increase the leadership capacity of managers. There is much talk about the need for training, but the talk must stop and investing must begin.
If performance were important, then union leaders and the employees they represent would be an integral part of improving operations. Their discussions would not be about who has the right to make a decision, or how fast a decision is made. Instead, their focus would be on the quality of that decision and whether it would increase agency performance.
The executive branch must produce more results for the public it serves. The question is whether the president, political appointees, career managers and union leaders will change their behavior to meet that end.
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