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Feds and Their Contractors Should Know Their Numbers

Imagine a world where every employee had one performance measure they were accountable for moving.

Performance management has been a main priority in the federal government for at least 20 years. Modern methods, including the use of advanced data-driven tools, are a relatively recent phenomenon. However, improving public service delivery through research goes back to at least the 1930s, with the International City/County Management Association.

In recent years, the establishment of the Government Performance and Results Act, Performance.gov, and the Performance Improvement Council are a few modern manifestations of using data to improve public accountability. Many governments have also begun utilizing web-based data analytics and dashboard tools to communicate their efforts around performance with stakeholders, partners, and the public. There is no lack of want or values, and many are certainly trying hard. If it’s not a lack of effort, what comes next? What can drive government accountability to the next level? What will maximize impact on wellbeing?

It’s rare to come across an agency that doesn’t have a public-facing performance improvement strategy. Some agencies have done better than others. Despite the nearly 100-year history of formalized performance management and the collective strides we’ve made, the government hasn’t achieved consistency across the board. The next frontier in government performance management will be establishing consistency. Consistency in this context means unification through a standard data collection and management strategy and system.  

To some, a unified data system across agencies may seem like an impossible albeit pleasant dream. But most meaningful endeavors do. So let’s imagine for a moment.

Creating Accountability

Imagine a world where every employee in the federal government, from administrative assistants to department directors, had one performance measure or “number” they were accountable for moving. They could monitor just one number at all times (something they were obsessed with improving) and those around them knew about it. This number could also inform annual performance reviews and weekly staff meetings to make reviewing progress the norm. 

Also, imagine each agency could publicize the percentage of employee numbers headed in the right direction. This would give stakeholders a snapshot of the efficacy of management tactics and gauge employees’ focus on the essential aspects of their role. 

Next, imagine if every government contract had no more than five performance measures or numbers reported quarterly in a consistent format. Government leaders would then know what percentage of government contract numbers were headed in the same direction at any given point in time, creating a clear report of the best expenditures. 

Finally, imagine that each of these parties is required to provide a “story” with each measure or number. The story provides context for the data to ensure fairness in analysis. It also ensures a deeper understanding of data within a broader timescale and scope. It forces us to consider disparities as integral to reality. The story explores a more comprehensive range of factors at play and prevents us from reducing data to a single variable. All this leads to better decision-making, less fear in acknowledging data, and less damage through inappropriate blame.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the federal government has approximately 2.1 million employees. The annual federal budget is $6.8 trillion, and it spent a record $665 billion on contractors in 2020. With more federal money going to contractors every year, the government and the public should expect better measures of accountability to ensure those dollars are well spent. 

For the federal government to have a high-performance culture and establish greater public confidence in accountability for public dollars, all feds and contractors need to know their numbers and get their stories straight. 

With the proper training, tools and coordination, the dream of a streamlined data management and performance improvement system across agencies that includes contractor performance can become a reality.  

Adam Luecking is CEO of Clear Impact, a public sector performance management technology company based in Rockville, MD. His email address is adam@clearimpact.com.

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