In his inaugural address, President Obama laid out a significant
challenge to the managers of the federal government and the public
and private sector partners that support government programs:
The question we ask today is not whether our government is too
big or too small, but whether it workswhether it helps families
find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that
is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward.
Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who
manage the publics dollars will be held to account to spend wisely,
reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day because
only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their
This is a bold call for a significant improvement in the execution
of government programs. A few years ago, Gerry Brokaw and I wrote a
series of articles entitled, In Pursuit of Higher Performance, in
which we proposed a framework and model that included an approach
for pursuing high performance. Part of that framework was
highlighted through a series of high-level questions that remain
- What is high performance? According to whom?
- Who sets the bar or establishes the definition?
- How would we know when we have achieved the objective?
Many public opinion polls tracking federal government performance
note that while there are pockets of improvement, the overall
assessment is government does not work the way it should or how
citizens expect. The gap between what is expected and what is
actually done breaks down trust between the government and those
Numerous polls can be referenced to support this assessment, but
the presidents assertion acknowledges the gap and sets a new bar
for performance: to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and to do our
business in the light of the day. These three actions will go a
long way to ensure the vital trust between a people and their
The list of recent public management challenges is long and
- intelligence agencies need to more effectively assess threats
and share information
- financial institutions need to better manage risk
- emergency response teams need to better coordinate
While these challenges are relatively well known, others remain
below the day-to-day public radar but are documented in detail in
numerous U.S. Government Accountability Office and inspectors
general reports. These challenges focus on compliance, efficiency
To improve federal performance, administrations over the past two
decades have initiated their own management reform agendas. These
have included a focus on total quality management, the
establishment of the National Performance Review, the creation of
the Presidents Management Agenda, the creation of the Program
Assessment and Rating Tool, and the promulgation of numerous
executive orders. The Legislative Branch has done its part, along
with the Government Performance Results Act and other measures in
the fields of IT, finance, and human capital management.
With all the attention and best efforts from our nations brightest
minds, what is missing? Why hasnt more progress been made? How can
the presidents call best be answered?
My experienceand that of my colleaguesis that setting the
expectations is a critical first step, but it is not sufficient.
The president has set the expectation and has raised the bar. It is
now time for leaders to take the three critical steps in making
significant performance improvement in federal programs and passing
Step 1| Recognize and Implement Three Dimensions of
To achieve high performance, we must recognize that performance
isnt one thing. It needs to be recognized in its three dimensions:
results, transparency, and stewardship. Figure 1 documents how
these work together to ensure line of sight from an organizations
strategic goals, through the functional components, to the
individual performer. Leadership needs to recognize its
organizations maturity on each of these dimensions and move
performance outward from the center.
: When working with our government
organization clients, we continue asking the same questions: Why
are you measuring that? If a measure is not driving behavior or
directly contributing to mission, why are you tracking it?
Good efforts are nice, but performance is what matters. Performance
is best measured in terms of results aligned to the mission, not
activities. Determine what is most important to the mission, then
drive performance improvement through it. It is important to think
through what the organization is really attempting to impact and
define this outcome in terms of results. Next, build dashboards
around these larger goals. This drives behavior and increases
I recall working with a top-level executive in a cabinet-level
department. He was extremely pleased with his strategic plan and
executive bonus program, and he called me to get my feedback. In
many ways, the executive was rightly justified in terms of his
improvements. In terms of results, he had several that were
holistic and measurable. A key deficiency was that none of the
performance measures were aligned with the departments top
In this case, the organization was moving performance in a
direction that, while not in opposition, was not properly aligned
and therefore not producing the mutually supporting outcomes that
would drive mission performance. Take away: Results need to be
outcome-based and aligned with the mission.
: Most government
organizations now work in matrixed or networked organizational
structures. For example, most planning is done within the
verticals, including IT, contracts, and human capital. Yet,
services are delivered horizontally and require acceptance,
support, and resources from others.
Many organizations work with other federal departments, agencies,
states, or nongovernmental agencies to deliver mission-related
services. These configurations represent networked organizational
structures. In both of these cases, transparency is critical to
effective service delivery.
For example, can you image playing baseball in the dark without any
lights? Or playing baseball without any counting or measurement? It
just wouldnt be baseball. You cant play in the dark, and you cant
play if you dont count. The same applies to team performance in
government services. Interdependent service delivery models require
openness and shared information. We need to able to engage others
and measure in public.
One example that really brought this home for me: I was taking a
group of federal executives to FedEx to benchmark mail delivery.
One of the key advantages FedEx had at that time was that its
delivery trucks worked in pods. Using their satellite measurement
system, the pods could track their individual and group performance
against service standards in real time. If any single truck fell
behind, they would rendezvous and redistribute the workload among
the pod to ensure on-time delivery.
You can see how important transparency was to the success of FedExs
mail delivery service standards. In high performance teams, quick
feedback loops and on-the-spot adjustments are built into the
process. Take away: Transparency is now a condition for high
: The stewardship dimension
focuses on two factors: 1) it recognizes that most goals require
participation and support from others, and 2) stewardship has a
long-term focus on sustainability.
That mission isnt about an event but a commitmenta promise. This
dimension links these to ensure effective coordination and
accountability in delivery. As stated earlier, many service
delivery processes require participation and support from others.
In the review of executive performance plans of the cabinet-level
department mentioned earlier, each executive had his own
performance goals. The problem was that the goals were individual,
but delivery was interdependent.
Given the structure of performance plans, there was little
collective confidence that the goals would be achieved. If the
goals were not shared, they were working at cross-purposes. Deming
explained it best: In the pursuit of optimizing the process, you
may sub-optimize the system. Take away: Performance is not an
event; you must focus on interdependencies and sustainability to
deliver on the mission over time.
We hear from many senior public managers that setting performance
goals and measures is hard and that getting buy-in is even harder.
In most cases, the reason is that the organization is focusing on
only one dimension of performance. To get buy-in you need to work
all three dimensions.
Step 2| Move the Many, Not the Few
A second critical facet for improving performance is recognizing
that while you must acknowledge exceptional performance and address
poor performance to significantly move the organization on the
performance continuum, you most move the many, not the few.
In many of the organizations I have worked with, most of the
organizations financial resources and time go to addressing
opposite ends of the performance curve (see Figure 2). Resources
are expended to deal with poor performance only to have marginal
On the other side, large amounts of money and rewards are provided
to the significant few in terms of performance pay, training, and
development. But from what the science and literature points to in
taking performance to another level, we need to move the many, not
I saw this principle at work in the U.S. Public Health Services
National Institutes of Health. To conduct world-class research,
they needed a world-class workforce. Years later as a federal
program manager, I tried to put this same principle to work.
Recognizing the performance and education gap in the program, I
worked with colleagues in the leadership team to support a
multiyear investment budget. We knew that if we wanted to
significantly improve performance, our focus needed to be on
information and feedback and tools and resources. Information and
tools in this case represented between 50 and 70 percent of the
Over the next three years, we trained the entire program staff in
new competencies designed to support new products and service
offerings of the program. We also provided each professional staff
member a laptop and advanced project management software to enhance
their productivity and work more effectively in a distributed team
environment. Putting that investment together wasnt easythere was
no additional funding.
As a leadership team, we made trade-offs, set priorities, and
measured in public. We recognized that to deliver on our mission we
needed to shift the success curve. It wasnt about hiring some
stars; it was, in fact, about making more stars.
In addition to putting in the investment budget, we instituted a
new performance management program, including a balanced scorecard
of performance and capability measures. Called the New Contract,
the performance management system focused on
- assignment completiona result measure, not process
- customer serviceas measured and reported by the recipient of
- value to behaviorsmodeling the values of the office as measured
by 360-degree feedback
- learningeach employee had a individual development plan aligned
to internal capacity needs of the organization consistent with
An interesting part of the performance agreement was the notion
that learning was an expectation. Given the large investment in
training and education, there was an expectation that staff would
not only complete course work, but also that the skills would be
demonstrated in their job performance. There was no way to continue
the large investment in training and education without a
commensurate increase in organizational capacity.
Take away: While it remains critical to pay attention to the full
performance continuum, the role for leadership is to build a high
performance workforce or internal capacity to deliver sustained
superior performance. To do that, we need to shift the performance
curvethe many, not just the few.
Step 3| Constantly Renew
There have been many books on change. Clearly, we recognize that
change is our only constant. It is widely acknowledged that the
rate of change is increasingly exponentially and that the world is
changing at an ever-increasing rate. How is it then that our
governmental programs, policies, systems, and processes seem so
incapable of change? How can they remain relevant?
There is no doubt that the Founding Fathers created a government
structure that put liberty ahead of efficiency. Thus, we have three
equal branches of government and a constitutional division of
powers. Does that mean that federal departments and programs cannot
renew in manner that is responsive to changing environmental needs
and constituents requirements?
The Renewal Factor, Robert Watermans first book since
In Search of Excellence, stated very clearly that to
remain competitive and relevant every business must renew
itselfthat without renewal there is no excellence. In our mixed
economy where the division between public and private between
inherently governmental and nongovernmental is extremely blurredthe
need for relevance and responsiveness is critical and is the
fullest measure of performance.
Watermans approach was his 7-S Frameworka systems approach to
integrating external demands with internal processes, technology,
and culture. The framework, while significant, is not as important
as the recognition that the rate of change must be made part of an
organizations on-going design and delivery systems.
In Ichak Adizes book Corporate Lifecycles (see Figure 3),
he illustrates the natural life cycle of corporations. His model is
displayed to the right and documents a natural death spiral for
organizations that do not renew. The challenge for federal
organizations is that in most cases, their natural state is
bureaucracy. How then do we create renewal in what are intended to
The good news is that there is evidence all around of how federal
departments and agencies have gone through the renewal processes
and refocused and aligned their missions to meet emerging needs and
to remain relevant and responsive to their constituents. When the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rechartered itself and
stated that its mission was to improve the environment and human
health, it was a dramatic renewal statement given the previous 20
years of enforcing environmental laws.
The agency stated that its vision and mission was to have a
positive effect on the environmentthat the status quo was not
sufficient. Its renewal statement changed everything about the
agency, from how they budgeted, recruited, and conducted
environmental planning (single media, multimedia) to ecosystems and
investment, education, and enforcement.
One of the most profound impacts was on the way it conducted work.
Work at EPA required a new way of thinking, planning, and working
together. As part of this change, the agency conducted its first
agencywide workforce development effort. One of the key outcomes of
this effort was the recognition that project management and
increased interpersonal and team skills were becoming as important
asor more important thantechnical skill sets.
For an agency that placed a great deal of importance on our
science, this was a dramatic shift. Yet, it demonstrated that to
move toward our new future, working together within and outside of
the agency was going to be critical. New skills and work methods
would be necessary.
You can see renewal today in many federal departments and agencies.
They may not be as dramatic as some, but renewal is occurring. The
key to renewal is in large part being willing to reflect, listen,
and always seek a better way to truly deliver on your mission. This
is, after all, the role of leadershipto understand not only the
law, but also the legislative intent. Leaders need to engage and
empower the workforce to deliver on the mission.
Take away: Leaders need to create energy within their
organizations. They must constantly look over the horizon and
reflect on their mission and ensure that performance is relevant,
sustainable, and impactful. Yesterdays performance is not a
predictor for tomorrows success. To lead this effort requires a
willingness to think anew, to explore, to invest in thinking to see
beyond the immediate, and to extend from content to context.