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Who is Accountable for Agency Performance?

Performance management is best seen as a puzzle—one the government hasn’t yet been able to put together.

The steps to improve performance are best seen as a puzzle; no single action is likely to have much impact.  The pieces are well known—research has highlighted what’s needed—but government has trouble putting them together. The problem affects organizations in every sector but it’s far more complex in government. In business, competition and economic trends make adjusting business plans and individual goals the norm.

A recent brief discussion of the problem on McKinsey’s “The Shortlist” highlights how difficult reform will be:

Delivering transformational change is clearly also difficult. According to our research, only 30 percent of organizational transformations are successful, and of the 70 percent that fail, nearly three-quarters do so because of unsupportive management behavior or employee resistance. In government, these obstacles can be compounded by the constraints of public-sector service, as well as by the predictable cycle of leadership changes that inevitably shift priorities and organizational focus."

Improvement Efforts Started 25 Years Ago

The measurement of financial results in business dates to the 15th century.  In the early 1900s scientific management and later industrial engineering was introduced to measure operating results. During the Kennedy Administration, systems analyses processes were adopted by the Defense Department. Efforts to improve efficiency continued but interest waned until the 1990s when the demand to hold government entities accountable triggered President Clinton’s reinventing government initiative.  

The Clinton administration created the President’s Management Council in 1993 to oversee “government reform initiatives, and coordinate efforts to improve government.” In 1995, the General Services Administration created the Office of Governmentwide Policy Overview to facilitate reform and identify, evaluate, and promote best practices. The Performance Improvement Council was created in 2010 to improve government performance and achieve the Federal priority goals.

The efforts of previous presidents are relevant because it confirms how difficult it is to improve government performance. After all these years, supportive legislation, several reform commissions, and the continuing investment in technology, government performance is still seen as a serious problem.

Who is Accountable?

My recent column, “It’s Time to Invest in Managers,” was prompted by the July letter from the leaders of the Government Managers Coalition to the House chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Operations, Rep.  Mark Meadows.

The coalition recommended a number of changes to enhance the effectiveness of managers and supervisors. Research confirms their role is central to maintaining employee commitment and to raising performance levels.

The column triggered several exchanges with individuals who have a broad, high level involvement and understanding of the day to day functioning of government.  In response to a question I asked about how well managers are prepared to manage change, one commented that a core problem is “that they have little/nothing to do with the planning and preparation. We don’t train folks for this either. They are trained to manage the systems and processes, if anything.”  Another commented, “The more salient point, I think, is that managers and executives are not provided the authority, training and resource to successfully implement those change management initiatives.”

They were referring to what at lower levels would be ownership and empowerment. It’s the loss of control and inability to influence the future that triggers resistance. People are more committed to achieving goals when they are involved in setting them. Assuming the comments are correct, federal executives and managers cannot be accountable when transformation initiatives fail. They can only be accountable for what they truly control. No other sector imposes similar constraints on their managers.

Government’s answer to this problem has been to add senior level jobs across government with titles that suggest accountability for something. Agencies have chief operating officers, chief financial officers, chief information officers, chief human capital officers and chief procurement officers, etc.  They all “advise and assist” with “strategic and performance planning,” support frequent data-driven reviews, “communicate goals, progress, and challenges” and administer policies, systems and programs. Performance improvement officers also “advise and assist.”

Agencies abound with advisors but their roles largely ignore the people issues.

Elected and appointed officials at all levels of government should be accountable for providing direction and adequate support but it’s not clear there is an understanding of what’s needed. Few officials have experienced the challenge of managing change in large organizations.

Their impact is exacerbated by disagreements on goals and priorities, and as McKinsey noted, the leadership changes that frequently shift priorities. That affects all employees.

The private sector is very different. There is broad agreement on the goals.  Employees progress to senior level positions when they demonstrate their ability to generate planned results. Those that succeed over years depend on an agility to shift priorities and tactics and perhaps most important empower and trust the people they manage to tackle operational problems.

The most striking difference is the influence of the rewards linking everyone’s efforts to making their organization a success. The sense of team commitment—"we"—is manifest in discussions. It’s rarely recognized that incentives in business reinforce a sense of accountability—performance failures are costly to everyone. That’s not the case in government.

The Proven Answer: Better Management

The answers are documented in studies supported by and reported on the U.S. Census Bureau website under the title, “Management in America.” The report is based on a survey of 30,000 manufacturing plants in the United States. Similar surveys have been conducted over more than a decade in a number of countries and industry sectors including healthcare and education. The results have been consistent.

The surveys show a set of structured management practices are “tightly linked to greater productivity, higher rates of innovation and faster performance employment growth.”  Significantly, the studies also show better results are not dependent on technology, R&D, or employee skills. The study reinforces the importance of better management.

A summary of the 18 practices in the survey include: 1) using metrics to track performance with regular discussions of steps to improve results; 2) use of stretch targets or goals; and 3) seven human capital practices. Nothing on the list is precluded by statute, although not a single practice is commonly used across government. The practices are all pieces of the performance puzzle.

In combination, the practices would redefine the roles and expectations of managers and change the working relationship between managers and subordinates.  

The human capital practices are central to the reforms recommended by the Managers Coalition to “provide agency heads and human resource managers with the necessary tools and guidance on how to recruit, develop, and retain the federal workforce of the future.” The study and the coalition recommendations highlight deficiencies in government’s human capital practices.

A thread running through all 18 practices, except possibly the first two, is that they would redefine the way many managers now approach their jobs. Although the coalition letter is silent on the issue, it is clear their recommendations would also redefine the jobs and expectations of managers. But that would necessitate training and support to develop new skills, guidance from change management specialists, and the adoption of best practice human capital systems to support better management.

Poor planning or insensitive actions can trigger “unsupportive management behavior” and “employee resistance” but those reactions are not inevitable. The best federal story continues to be the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and how employees played a prominent role in planning the agency’s “people systems.”  The lesson from both the public and private sectors is that in knowledge organizations, people need to be central to reform initiatives.

In the most successful organizations—businesses as well as hospitals—a sense of accountability is a shared mindset. Employees are committed to their employer’s continued success. People love working in that environment. Agencies that rely on top down planning are unlikely to secure that level of commitment.

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