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The Missing Element in Revitalizing the Workforce: Performance

As long as day to day management of performance remains unchanged, it’s unrealistic to expect better results.

The calls for rebuilding the federal workforce started in 2020 when the National Academy of Public Administration listed “modernize and reinvigorate the public workforce” as one of the 12 “grand challenges” facing the nation. Since then, the workforce has been a topic of countless congressional hearings, panel discussions, podcasts, and even a Washington-area television program. The Biden White House has released several executive orders and memorandum focused on strengthening the workforce.

NAPA made three recommendations focused on adding talent: Building interest in public service, shifting to more flexible pay and job classification, and reforming the hiring process. A working group also recommended improving the quality of managers and supervisors and identifying talent management as a presidential priority.  

But aside from “the quality of managers,” the many reports written on the topic have been largely silent on two issues that are continually a focus of initiatives in the private sector. First are the workplace attributes highlighted in the research on high performance organizations and the Great Places to Work—open communications, trust, collaborative working relationships, etc. Second, the only reference to “performance” in the NAPA paper is in the statement criticizing “promotion rules that value longevity over expertise and performance.”  

NAPA of course has produced several reports that focus on the management of performance. However, the management of agency performance and employee performance unfortunately are treated as unrelated problems. That reflects the history of civil service, the governing statutes, and the separate roles of the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management.

A House committee used the word “revitalizing” in the title of a hearing on needed actions “to repair, rebuild, and fortify [the civil service] for the future.” Implicit in the use of the word is that a revitalized workforce will be more solidly committed to an agency’s mission. However, during the hearing, only James Sherk, Trump’s labor policy adviser, discussed performance—and his focus was on dealing with poor performers.

The reports and hearings are valuable—building a broad consensus for investing in the workforce is important—but as long as the day to day management of performance remains unchanged, it’s unrealistic to expect better results. 

Investing in Managers

There was a time in the distant past when the job of “manager” was relatively simple. They told subordinates what to do and made sure they did it. Industrial engineers were responsible for defining jobs and performance expectations. Seniority was the basis for naming new supervisors. Manager training was limited, focused on company policies and legal requirements. 

In the years after World War II, pent-up consumer demand fueled exceptionally strong economic growth. With the rapid growth, large organizations emerged; owner/managers were replaced by a cadre of professional executives trained in business schools. Growth continued, with brief downturns, to 1990 when global competition and the recession necessitated cost cutting. A common response was eliminating layers of management, which opened the door to employee empowerment. Personal computers and cell phones came into common use, enabling managers to monitor results from a distance. Knowledge jobs emerged. The pandemic and working remotely is the latest development. The changes in the work management paradigm have been revolutionary.  

Two decades ago, Gallup started promoting the importance of employee engagement and its impact on performance. While Gallup has gotten the attention, a number of researchers have confirmed the linkage of employee engagement and performance.

The research also confirmed the old adage, “people quit their bosses, not their jobs.” In government a dissatisfied employee may be reluctant to quit—walking away from accrued benefits is costly—but they can and sometimes do resign. That’s costly since their discontent affects other employees.

Gallup’s studies show managers and their approach to supervision account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement. Their analyses show the level of engagement is correlated with several performance metrics—absenteeism, turnover, accidents, mistakes, etc.—associated with operating costs. To quote from a recent Gallup post, “In nearly every dimension of business success, the manager makes the difference. From diversity and inclusion to productivity and retention, the manager plays a singular role in the life of an employee.”

It needs to be emphasized that raising performance levels requires change. Investing in managers to develop the supervisory practices associated with high performance will pay off with better results.  

All the evidence suggests far too many federal managers rely on an approach to supervision that is not appreciably different than it was decades ago. Unless there is a reason to change, managers perpetuate the supervisor style they learn from their experience. Evidence from other sectors makes it very clear performance cannot be improved as long as the work experience and the approach to supervision are unchanged.  

As this was written, OPM announced the plan to begin the 2021 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey in November. It would be timely to connect the results with the performance measures in the Gallup survey and similar research studies. The survey data could be used in an analysis to compare the responses linked to performance and with the practices of the most effective managers.  

It’s likely the optimal manager practices vary from agency to agency. To be sure, there are common cultural characteristics but effective supervision in agencies as diverse as the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the Internal Revenue Service has to require somewhat different supervisory behaviors. An analytics study would identify the differences. Analytics could also identify clusters or archetypes of manager styles.

Then agencies would have the information to develop manager training programs, develop more focused appraisal instruments, and use coaches to work with managers needing improvement.

But when the goal is to improve performance, change is essential. Research, as well as personal experience as parents, tells us desired behavior needs to be reinforced and rewarded. In other sectors, pay for performance for managers is universal. That is a proven strategy to improve results. A manager's success should be directly related to their effectiveness.

Replace Traditional Job Descriptions

A key problem for government is how it defines jobs. For example, the standard for Professional and Administrative Work in the Accounting, Auditing, and Budget Group, 0500, is 103 pages long—and it's one of the newest, released in 2019. No other sector would ever consider anything like that. Its screams of outdated bureaucracy. It would be interesting to learn how often those pages have actually been read.  

Despite the volumes of job documentation, anecdotal evidence suggests an unknown number of jobs are over graded. OPM no longer has the staff capability, however, to verify grades. That undermines the credibility of the GS system. Again, change is needed.  

In today’s uncertain environment, jobs and performance expectations change throughout the year. As a guess, the sudden shift to working remotely must have invalidated virtually every existing standard. In business, the focus in planning is improving results.  

Assuming agencies want to improve performance—that’s discussed in reports but not supported by the evidence—it would be far more productive to shift to the widely used goal-based management, with managers and their people discussing and agreeing on expected accomplishments. Employees work at their best when they are empowered and know what they need to accomplish.  

When someone is asked about their job, they can describe what they do in a minute or two. Similar brief descriptions are used in salary surveys.  

Descriptions should include a statement summarizing how the incumbent contributes to a team, unit or agency’s success, metrics relevant to evaluating performance, the knowledge and competencies associated with good performance, career paths, reporting relationships and working relationships with co-workers and other units. That information is relevant to all stages of talent management. 

The Goal: Creating a Performance Culture

Business planning focuses on growth and profitability. Those cascading goals depicted in textbooks always end with the so-called bottom line. That works in part because of the financial incentives. In the past, it was argued that “it’s the paycheck that counts.” Today millions of employees are resigning. That makes it clear today’s employees want something more.

Government should have an advantage. A McKinsey podcast from June, “The Search for Purpose at Work,” captured the value of a job that provides “a sense of direction, intention, and understanding that the contribution you’re making is going somewhere [and a] reason for going to a job each day.” Purpose “usually speaks to higher values or a higher mission.” That describes government service.

NAPA reports have repeatedly highlighted the importance of “mission accomplishment.” Agency performance goals and metrics have been required for almost two decades. A 2004 GAO report, “GPRA Has Established a Solid Foundation for Achieving Greater Results,” highlighted agency progress.  

However, although that was years ago, a key point in the report is that managers agreed they are “accountable,” but a significantly lower percentage agreed they have the “decision-making authority needed to help the agency accomplish its strategic goals.” Moreover, fewer than half “reported receiving relevant training” or a “positive recognition for helping agencies achieve results.” 

That reality represents one of the most important differences when government practices are compared with best practices in the private sector. Empowering managers is fundamentally important. Additionally, in business, the pay package for managers at every level includes “merit” salary increases and cash incentives. Add to that occasions to recognize team and individual accomplishments and agencies should realize significant performance gains. Everyone wins.