Improving the Performance of Government Employees: A Manager's Guide

Improving the Performance of Government Employees: A Manager's Guide

by Stewart Liff

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With public scrutiny intensifying every day, optimizing the performance of government employees and departments is more critical than ever before. And just as in the private sector, the key for managers is to understand how different management systems perform individually and interact with one another. This book examines the roles and


With public scrutiny intensifying every day, optimizing the performance of government employees and departments is more critical than ever before. And just as in the private sector, the key for managers is to understand how different management systems perform individually and interact with one another. This book examines the roles and challenges of structural and technical systems, information and decision-making processes, rewards systems, and human capital management, and shows managers how to:

• Deliver clear and consistent messages to all employees

• Position employees and units to provide the best possible service to the public

• Hold them accountable through clear expectations and measurable goals

• Work with a strong leadership team to maintain, adjust, and improve all procedures

Liff devotes a chapter to each system and discusses its impact on overall performance as well as how to work proactively and innovatively to implement changes that will make a big difference. Including real-world government case studies demonstrating dramatic change, the book is both an inspiration and a blueprint for substantial improvement within every facet of government work.

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A Manager's Guide
By Stewart Liff


Copyright © 2011 Stewart Liff
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8144-1622-8

Chapter One


The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA)

In recognition of the growing concern regarding the performance of the federal government, in 1993 Congress enacted the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA). This legislation changed the way that the federal government managed its performance by requiring federal agencies to become results-oriented. "The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has described GPRA as being 'the centerpiece of a statutory framework Congress put in place during the 1990s to address long-standing weaknesses in federal operations, improve federal management practices, and provide greater accountability for achieving results.'"

Its goals were to:

"(1) improve the confidence of the American people in the capability of the Federal Government, by systematically holding Federal agencies accountable for achieving program results; (2) initiate program performance reform with a series of pilot projects in setting program goals, measuring program performance against those goals, and reporting publicly on their progress; (3) improve Federal program effectiveness and public accountability by promoting a new focus on results, service quality, and customer satisfaction; (4) help Federal managers improve service delivery, by requiring that they plan for meeting program objectives and by providing them with information about program results and service quality; (5) improve congressional decision-making by providing more objective information on achieving statutory objectives, and on the relative effectiveness and efficiency of Federal programs and spending; and (6) improve internal management of the Federal Government."

The Act required agencies to develop long-term strategic plans that identified outcome-related goals and objectives, explained how the goals and objectives would be achieved, identified the key external factors to the organization and beyond its control that could hamper its achievement of the general goals and objectives, and explained the program evaluations used in developing or adjusting the general goals and objectives, with a timetable for future program evaluations.

Each agency was further required to prepare an annual performance plan for every program activity contained in its budget. The plan had to establish performance goals defining the level of performance to be achieved by an activity; list such goals in a quantifiable and measurable form, if possible; describe what was required to meet these goals; develop the appropriate performance indicators; and provide a way to compare program results with the established performance goals.

The GPRA is important to this discussion because it changed the focus of federal agencies from process/compliance to outcomes. It let everyone know that, more than ever, they would be accountable for achieving the desired results. This important distinction placed that much more pressure on government managers at all levels to deliver excellent performance.

Why Is It So Difficult to Manage Performance in the Government?

The simple reason it is difficult to manage performance in government is that there are a wide variety of factors and variables at play, a number of which are extremely difficult to manage and control. By the same token, it is important to recognize that many of these factors and variables are not as tough to handle as you might think and that the difficulties managers face with them are often a function of inexperience, a lack of will, or simply poor decision making.

If you look at many of the potential issues that managers have to deal with, you will begin to appreciate the challenges that every government manager faces on a daily basis. Let's take a look at some of them.

Budget Constraints and Difficulties

First of all, there is the government's budget cycle, which often takes one to two years from the time money is budgeted until it is eventually allocated to an individual department, agency, or administration. This built-in delay often means that by the time government managers receive their budgets, they may not be sufficient for the task at hand due to changing situations.

A good example of this was 9/11. Since no one anticipated the unprecedented terrorist attacks on our nation, the resources needed to respond to these attacks were not included in the normal budget cycle. While Congress quickly allocated hundreds of billions of dollars to ramp up the war effort and address homeland security, it did not initially budget for programs that were ancillary to these efforts, such as veterans' health care, the processing of veterans' benefits claims, and so on. The net result was that performance in these areas deteriorated; for example, VA hospitals were inundated with veterans seeking services, and the backlog of claims to be adjudicated grew to exceed a million cases.

On a day-to-day basis, government managers deal with this issue all the time, and, in most cases, the reasons for the disconnect are far less dramatic. For example, it may be that the budget distribution system is flawed, resulting in some organizations receiving a disproportionately low amount of money relative to their mission. It may be that this is a lean budget year due to a national emphasis on deficit reduction or a local shortfall in tax collections, resulting in everyone suffering from cutbacks. Or it may simply be that the resources have remained stable but, due to outside forces, the workload has dramatically increased, which for all intents and purposes means that the budget is insufficient to achieve the organization's goals.

Complicated Recruiting and Management Systems

By and large, the government's employees are just as good as the private sector's. However, the systems that the government uses to hire its employees tend to be complicated and confusing, often resulting in the government taking an inordinate amount of time to bring on new employees. Moreover, because the government quite rightly gives priority in hiring to certain groups of applicants (e.g., veterans, disabled persons), selecting officials sometimes find themselves choosing candidates who are in high-priority groups but have a lower level of technical skills than other applicants.

Once the selectees become employees, they are part of a system that offers them a wide variety of rights and protections. They generally have extensive rights to grieve any dissatisfaction with their employment, either through an agency or through a negotiated grievance procedure. They can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission whenever they feel they have been victims of discrimination. If they are federal employees, they can also file a complaint with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board if they feel that a prohibited personnel action was taken against them or lodge a charge with the U.S. Federal Labor Relations Authority if they believe that an unfair labor practice was committed. Many government employees at the state or local levels have similar rights.

To complicate matters even further, if a worker proves to be a poor employee and a disciplinary, adverse, or performance action is taken against him, he has extensive rights to reply to the proposed action and then to appeal if the action is taken. These protections can make some employees feel invulnerable and can and most certainly have resulted in some employees exercising them to "grind their supervisors down," meaning that they have prevented their bosses from having both the time and energy to concentrate on managing the performance of their activities.

High-Cost Locations

Government offices are often located where their clients are. Although cost is sometimes a factor in choosing the locations (e.g., the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission), it is not the driving factor that it is in the private sector. Although computers have certainly made it more feasible to centralize government activities to lower-cost areas, you wouldn't want to relocate a VA medical center from New York City to Muskogee, a police force from Los Angeles to Reno, or a sanitation department from Chicago to Sioux Falls. It just wouldn't make sense.

As a result, government leaders who manage activities in high-cost areas have major challenges. For example, since the salaries they offer have frequently been noncompetitive, they have generally been less able to attract top talent, and their employees have had to live farther away from work and therefore have had draining commutes. The government also tends to experience frequent turnover, cope with a statistically larger number of difficult employee and labor relations issues, and have sky-high fixed costs (e.g., rent, utilities). To make matters even worse, government officials who manage these offices invariably have a hard time recruiting key managers to work for them because the salaries offered in these locations often do not cover the cost of housing, the expense of education, and so on.

The Mindset

In my opinion, this is one of the biggest challenges facing government organizations. Far too many of its managers believe that they can't manage performance and hold their employees accountable, because it is too difficult, too time-consuming, and too painful. Moreover, those who have tried have often been frustrated by the lack of support from their superiors.

How often have you heard a senior manager say, "Better to have half an employee than no employee at all?" How frequently have you seen poorly performing activities receive large performance awards? Have you watched a rotten apple be moved all around your organization and then get stuck with him? I think you get the point. These scenarios happen all the time. They are not a result of bad government systems; they reflect a mindset that believes in taking the path of least resistance rather than dealing with performance problems.

The good news is that an organization's mindset can be changed. It is not an easy thing to do, since it involves a change in culture. However, if management has the will and skill, it is definitely doable.

Unintended Effects of Legislation

Government leaders must follow the law when managing their organizations. Obviously, we are a nation that is governed by laws, and this in and of itself is not a bad thing. Laws are the foundation of our country, and the governing laws provide us with structure and direction.

However, in my experience, political forces often drive the creation of laws, and, while this is often a good thing, sometimes laws passed to address a short-term issue (e.g., a war, a disaster) can create unintended sets of problems. Moreover, once a law is passed, it is extremely difficult to change it, especially in this day and age when Congress and our nation is so polarized.

For example, employees of my old organization, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), are responsible for adjudicating claims for veterans' benefits. In a given month, they make decisions on ninety thousand or more claims. The decisions involve new claims for benefits, appeals of recent decisions, and reopened claims.

Veterans' benefits are often a political "hot potato," especially when our nation is at war, which we are today. As I mentioned earlier, the backlog of pending claims for veterans' benefits has reached a million cases, and that is often blamed on the bureaucrats running VBA. While I have no doubt that VBA has had more than its fair share of mismanagement, it is also important to note that VBA operates within a series of laws that help perpetuate a continuing backlog.

To cite just one illustration, veterans have one year to appeal a claims decision. Conversely, citizens only have two months to appeal an adverse decision on Social Security benefits. By allowing veterans an extra ten months in their appeals process, Congress has allowed a small percentage of veterans to use this time to submit all sorts of redundant and contradictory information/evidence that create inordinate delays in gathering evidence and establishing overlapping situations that preclude reasonable, timely decisions. In short, the unintended consequences of this component of the law has been to enable a limited number of veterans to consume a large percentage of available claims adjudication time that could be better used serving other veterans.

The Fishbowl Effect

Government managers operate within a fishbowl wherein virtually all of the actions they take seem to be subject to review by a wide variety of forces. For example, area and/or regional offices, as well as headquarters, are always looking over their shoulders. In addition, they have the Inspector General (IG) to deal with, as well as the Office of Management and Budget, which is an arm of the White House, and the General Accounting Office (GAO). On top of this, they have to be concerned with their local congressional representatives, whom their constituents frequently turn to when they are not happy.

Of course, let's not forget about the media, who are always looking for a good story that uncovers government corruption, malfeasance, or inefficiency. In addition, special interest and/or government watchdogs are out there looking to expose government actions that they do not approve of.

Even the people who work for these government managers may point the finger at them when they think they are out of line. For example, the unions that represent government employees always keep a close eye on management to make sure that it is treating the employees fairly and is not doing anything that would harm the bargaining unit. Moreover, sometimes the employees themselves will criticize their supervisors by complaining to upper management, the IG, their local representative, or the media.

As you can imagine, trying to manage a government organization while having so many eyes constantly watching you is not an easy thing to do.

Other Complicating Issues

The aforementioned are just a few of the constraints that government managers have to deal with. Other potential challenges may include:

* Technology. This may involve the computer systems not being up-to-date or not talking to each other, not having the requisite security, not being flexible enough to keep up with the demands of the mission, or simply not having the right equipment. * Work processes. The organization may have work processes that are inefficient or unclear or that feature too many handoffs. It may not have sufficient documentation of the processes, leading to confusion and frequent mistakes. * Organizational design. The organizational structure may not be appropriate for the present situation. It may have too many layers of management or many redundancies or may simply require consolidation. * Physical plant. The organization may be housed in outdated or dysfunctional space that hinders its ability to accomplish its mission, or it may have good space that is not being used as well as it should be. * Metrics. The metrics may be poorly described, or they may not properly reflect what the organization is trying to accomplish. On the other hand, the organization may have good metrics but poorly written performance standards, resulting in a weak line of sight from the national level down to the local employee. * Information. Data may not flow properly throughout the organization or may not be available to the appropriate people who need them. Even worse, the organization may not be able to capture essential data or may be unable to gather data on a timely basis. * Training. The organization may have a weak training program that does not provide its employees and managers with the skills they need in order to thrive, or it may provide good individual training courses but not structure the training in a strategic fashion that would enable the organization to meet its long-term goals.


Excerpted from IMPROVING THE PERFORMANCE OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES by Stewart Liff Copyright © 2011 by Stewart Liff. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

STEWART LIFF began his career with the federal government in 1974. He is a winner of the President’s Council on Management Improvement Award and the Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious Service. His books include Managing Government Employees (978-0-8144-0887-2).

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