Agencies Should Celebrate Their Accomplishments
There is no better way to motivate high performance than making it public.
The reports of performance problems make the headlines but it’s rare to find success stories reported any place. It’s surprisingly difficult to find positive stories of government. There have been a couple of articles looking at the “greatest achievements” over the past half century but apparently nothing good has happened recently. It’s normally good to be humble, but the silence makes it much more difficult to rebut the “government is the problem” argument. The reticence has implications for public opinion as well as for staffing and the level of employee engagement.
In a related problem, the percentage of millennials in government has dropped to its lowest level in five years, according to a recent article in The Washington Post. The numbers are not just low, they are dangerously low — and dropping. Focusing on recent graduates (under age 25), the problem is even worse — those young workers account for 0.9 percent of the federal workforce. Those are the same individuals who reportedly want to give back to society, support causes that align with their personal beliefs, and help those in need. Their decision to bail out of government says a lot about their work experience and their dissatisfaction.
The problem clearly is not limited to young employees. The morale problem has been reported widely. The overall number of employees committed to federal service has declined significantly in the past few years. The critics have unfortunately been effective in denigrating federal service.
Companies in contrast are very effective at tooting their own horn. Many excel at marketing and promoting their brand. They need to satisfy current investors and attract new ones. When the investor community and the public have a high regard for a company, everyone benefits. That’s why companies have public relations and investor relations offices.
Universities are similarly committed to promoting their brand. In a recent analysis of websites for the leading schools of public administration, I found Syracuse University’s Maxwell School stands out as a stellar example. Every federal employee who sees it would have to conclude their agency’s website is not nearly as effective at selling the value of what they are doing.
Multi-campus universities like Rutgers or the State University of New York have developed separate websites for each campus that highlight local events, programs and faculty accomplishments. The departments of Veterans Affairs, Commerce, Agriculture, Interior and others have multiple locations serving different constituencies that would benefit from separate websites. It would give local leaders a place to promote their success in satisfying their “customers.”
As companies do routinely, those websites would be an ideal place to display the performance data relevant to their operations. There is no better way to motivate high performance than making it public.
The value of the websites might be even greater for local workforces. It would enhance their sense of local pride and commitment to making their workplace a success.
For reasons that are no doubt buried in history, recognizing and rewarding performance is the single worst people management practice in government. That is evident in the responses to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey going back for years. With managers who are ineffective, it’s unfortunately an established pattern that will be difficult to change. Highlighting accomplishments on a local website would provide an impetus to recognize the employees responsible for the accomplishments.
The underlying problem is the failure of government to invest in the management of the workforce. The foundation of people management practices are laws, policies, practices and programs that are decades old. The obvious comparison is the commitment over the past two decades to technology, the several iterations of management mandates, and the disappointing return on the investment.
There is more on the Office of Personnel Management’s website dealing with poor performers than with high performers, and more discussion on recruitment and relocation incentives along with voluntary separation incentives than on the use of incentives to reward high performers. Guidance on planning incentives for managers is in the “collection of archived material” as if it’s no longer relevant. There does not appear to be anyone who defends the way compensation is administered.
In 1954, the Incentive Awards Act allowed “agencies to establish cash and other programs to recognize individual accomplishments and behaviors, particularly suggestions and inventions.” Six decades later there is no evidence agencies have learned from their experience.
OPM offers seminars for experienced leaders on creating a high-performance organization, but apparently the content is silent on the use of rewards. There is nothing on the OPM website that suggests that is an important consideration. The agency should consider handing out the book 1,001 Ways to Reward Employees. It’s not theoretical; it simply lists ideas for using rewards. Rewards do not have to involve money.
There are a couple widely accepted theoretical points that are central to the use of rewards. One is that behavior recognized with positive reinforcement is likely to be repeated. That idea is used in daily activities from training pets to tipping waiters. The second is that when high performers are treated the same as average performers, over time their commitment declines. It’s inequitable.
Changing those websites would be good starting point. Both the public and the workforce need to have the value of government reinforced.