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Is better government performance still possible?

Jun. 12, 2014 - 01:44PM   |  
By HOWARD RISHER   |   Comments
Howard Risher is a consultant and writer on federal pay and performance issues. He was the managing consultant for the studies leading to the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and is the author of 'Planning Wage and Salary Programs.'

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Here’s a piece of trivia: From 1994 to the end of the Bill Clinton administration more than 1,200 Hammer Awards were granted. Federal employees with less than 15 years of experience are not likely to understand that statement, but for others it could bring back memories of a very different era.

The Hammer Awards were Vice President Al Gore’s answer “to yesterday’s government and its $400 hammer.” The award parodied inflated Pentagon purchasing costs and consisted of a $6 hammer, a ribbon, and a note from the VP in an aluminum frame. The award recognized “teams of pioneers who create an innovative . . .process or program to make government work better, cost less and get results.”

The awards were part of the National Performance Review (NPR), renamed the National Partnership for Reinventing Government. Its accomplishments are less important today than its core philosophy – a government-wide initiative to reform government and encourage bottom-up innovation.

The initial momentum slowed when Republicans gained control of the House in 1994. The Clinton/Gore approach to reform ended with George W. Bush’s election. The Bush/Cheney philosophy was reflected in the “top down” way the National Security Personnel System (NSPS) was planned and implemented. That philosophy is in direct contrast to the Gore initiative.

Shortly before President Obama took office, John Kamensky and Jonathan Breul co-authored an article comparing the Clinton/Gore and Bush/Cheney approaches to reform. As they describe it, the NPR attempted to “directly engage frontline employees.” In contrast, the Bush approach relied on a “top-down, chain of command manner.” NPR engaged federal unions in the initiative while Bush curtailed their role. The Hammer Awards recognized employee successes; the Bush administration relied on the “shame and humiliation” of publicly released scorecards of progress.

Neither was a solid success; mid-term elections had an adverse impact on both reform efforts. However, looking back, as a consultant and student of high performance work groups, it’s obvious the Bush administration ignored what we’ve learned about the value of gaining employee commitment to their employer’s success. In the end they created a hostile work environment. The failures, the budget cuts, and the ongoing criticism of government have unfortunately made a bad situation worse.

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It seems that every day government’s critics find a reason to slam agencies for something. Some of their criticism is certainly warranted. The VA’s problems are scandalous. The problems with Healthcare.com were troubling but not a complete failure of the Obama administration. It goes on and on. With all the headlines even the most dedicated public servants have to question their career choice.

Hopefully it’s not too late. For the 99th time there is broad interest in civil service reform but that’s probably impossible in the current climate. Short of that, there are a number of steps agencies can undertake to improve performance and at the same time revive the sense of engagement that makes government work satisfying.

It’s sometimes forgotten that the NPR initiative was a response to New Public Management, a phrase that in the 1990s was a mantra for government reform. The NPM was in some respect a response in the public sector to the dramatic changes through that decade in the way work was then organized and managed in the private sector. (I published a book on high performance in the middle of the decade.)

It’s not clear when or why the New Public Management lost momentum but now it’s almost forgotten. It was not limited to workforce issues but public employers adopted the philosophy and many of the practices that emerged in the private sector. Those practices include but are not limited to delayering, self-managed teams, matrix organizations, empowerment, group and team incentives, leaders at all levels, support for development – the list goes on and on.

Research on high performance confirms that with a different work management paradigm employees are capable of performing at significantly higher levels. That model is essentially the antithesis of the traditional government bureaucracy. A surprising thread that runs through the studies of high performance organizations is that people love working there. They may go home exhausted but they are anxious to return the next day. They like the challenges, the shared enthusiasm, and the sense of accomplishment.

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The government reality is captured in OPM’s annual survey. Employees want to have their value recognized but only 31 percent believe that’s happening. The Hammer Awards did that. They want to be rewarded for their contribution but only 38 percent believe bonuses depend on performance. They like to feel empowered but less than half do. Perhaps most important to solving problems – only 35 percent think creativity and innovation are rewarded. All of that means employees will be reluctant to take an initiative.

Strategies that raise those percentages will improve performance along with the work climate.

This is not the traditional bailiwick of HR, however. It’s a “people management” problem but it’s unrelated to the usual HR role. It’s not a policy or a systems problem. The many books on high performance often do not mention the HR office.

Part of the problem for government is that there is currently no “home” for this expertise. OPM at one time had a sizeable staff of consulting psychologists but many have moved on. Actually it’s often true that employee teams can develop the most successful solutions. The NPR experience in the 1990s makes it very clear they can develop great answers – and they have a decided advantage, they are trusted by co-workers. That was also a lesson from the experience with reengineering.

But major change initiatives need a champion at a senior level. There has been a lack of leadership on these issues. Where an agency task force is created, expect plenty of volunteers. The members will not need individual expertise on the people issues; that’s available in numerous books. They will, however, benefit from guidance and at times a cheerleader.

Someplace in government there should be an office staffed with this expertise. The potential for performance gains and savings is too important to ignore.

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