The Potential Payoff for Applying Metrics and Analytics to Government Is Significant

But managers need more training, and all employees need to be involved in performance initiatives.

Our recent column on metrics and analytics triggered several stimulating exchanges. One thread running through the reaction to these proven practices, which have been widely used in business for decades, is that they have not gained broad support in government. Corporate managers are inundated daily by performance data. And of course predictive analytics are central to virtually every research field.  

Government differs in several key ways. First, competitive markets make it important for companies to perform at their best. For reasons buried in history, government has focused on poor performance – the few employees whose poor performance is unacceptable, while companies celebrate high performers and their accomplishments. Second, government’s HR policies continue to reflect the people management philosophy inherent in civil service laws. Meeting minimal performance standards is all the law requires.  There are no programmatic incentives in government for high performance.

But more importantly, the plans to invest in developing metrics or use analytics to study the data are made at senior levels. In a business, leaders are always open to ideas or practices that contribute to improved results. They are quick to adopt practices to grow their company’s success. Again, government is different.

One of the barriers, according to someone who has been heavily involved in these discussions, is that “leaders at all levels . . . have little experience or training in the value and use of analytics.” As she notes, “When a senior leader comes into government from the private sector, they are the ones most comfortable with and have an expectation of having good data from which to ask thoughtful questions and make sound decisions.”  

That is consistent with our experience. Many government leaders, elected and appointed, are interested primarily in public policy issues, and have little if any training, experience or interest in management concerns.

She went on to state, “A further contributing factor in the lack of data use is that congressional staff, especially the Appropriations [Committee] staff, seldom ask for it or use it to inform their decisions when agencies provide it.” Although not stated, it suggests congressional staff are not demanding improved results.

Efforts to improve performance are definitely not new. In reading prior reports, the old Yogi Barra quote comes to mind: “Deja Vu All Over Again.” A decade ago, George W. Bush’s answer was the creation of the position Performance Improvement Officer. The goal for PIOs was “to ensure that the mission and long-term goals of their agencies are achieved through strategic and performance planning, measurement, analysis, regular assessment of processes and the use of performance information to improve results.”

That is from a 2011 report by the Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton report, “A Critical Role at a Critical Time” summarizing a survey of PIOs. According to the PIOs, “Agencies have a need for reliable performance measures and effective systems to generate the type of information required for meaningful analysis.”  However, the authors state PIOs often lack top-leader support.

Suggestion: It’s clear that broad performance gains are unlikely without the support of leaders. But their commitment is far more likely if they understand the potential for gains. That suggests it would be advantageous to publicize the success stories of agencies showing impressive gains.

That, however, is only half of the problem. Initiatives that involve changes in work processes that impact employees and their work experience are often less than fully successful when the changes are planned and mandated by leaders or higher level specialists.   

Recently reported research in the Harvard Business Review by two academics in England explains why so many change initiatives are less than fully successful. Not surprisingly, employee resistance (or lack of full cooperation) is the barrier. The research conclusions are solidly consistent with our consulting experience.

The research focused on change initiatives that involved redefining organizational structures, realigning decision authorities (organizational governance) and rethinking operational processes. If workforce reduction is added to the list, it effectively captures the Office of Management and Budget’s “Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government”.

The researchers asked corporate leaders in 20 countries and 25 industries, “What, in their experience, were the biggest barriers to execution-of-change plans — and 76 percent cited employee interaction. In other words, people failing to work together to make change happen.”

In the private sector, organizational change is far more common. However, even when managers and employees agree that change is needed, a high percentage of change initiatives (50 percent to 70 percent by one estimate) either fail or are disappointments.

The core problem, according to the researchers, is that leaders limit their focus to the ‘tangible’ issues – organization structure, technology, decision making authority, metrics, work processes, etc. – the elements that can be documented and planned, typically in meetings and in reports written for leaders. Those are the elements leaders control and for which they can issue directives; their subordinates in turn follow orders and issue their own directives.  

But those directives promise, actually threaten, to change the employee work experience. Planned changes could force their retirement, alter career prospects, force them to establish new working relationships, require mastering new job knowledge, frustrate them with new problems, even prompt the need to relocate, etc. All of those prompt questions about how the changes will affect their lives and careers.

There is an alternative approach. No one knows the issues affecting a job or work experience better than an incumbent. Employees’ understanding of workplace issues is significantly better than leaders two or three levels above them. When operating or budget problems undermine an organization’s prospects for success, employees at all levels are concerned and normally willing to help.  

The answer is to create a work environment where employees understand they are expected to address problems. If a task force is given the goals and rationale for reform, along with a clear understanding of any constraints, it will tackle the problem and normally develop solid recommendations that balance all considerations.  

However, that means leaders would be giving up control. This is the crux of the problem. The researchers heard from the corporate leaders that they were reluctant to cede control. They saw it as too risky. At a time when they would benefit from the best thinking from staff, they were hesitant to solicit their help. Its compounded in government by the mistrust between political appointees and employees.

Suggestion: Invite employee teams to submit proposals to develop new metrics or apply analytics to improve performance. Proposals should include anticipated benefits, a tentative schedule and needed resources, if any. Evaluate and, if warranted, authorize their project. Possible rewards for success should be defined up front.  

When employees are empowered and responsible for planning and carrying out a change initiative, they are likely to develop a sense of ownership and commitment to making it a success. The gains can be impressive. Success feeds success.