Ending the Gotcha Game

The more managers are free to admit an impending failure without fear of being throttled, the better off a government will be.

You know the scenario: A parent explains to a child that lying is a bad idea. "If you do something wrong," the parent says, "you just have to come to me and honestly admit it."

Now fast forward to the next time the kid breaks a lamp or accidentally starts a fire in the microwave. The youngster tiptoes in and admits to the crime. Does the parent patiently confer absolution? Not likely. The kid probably winds up with a lecture and a week's worth of being grounded. Next time, of course, the child won't be so forthcoming. And thus goes life.

A similar sequence of events is remarkably commonplace in government. If public employees are punished when performance measures identify shortcomings, they're more likely to muck around with the measures than risk their careers or their programs. The same notion applies to entire programs and agencies: If an admission of difficulties is greeted with knee-jerk budget cuts, then self-preservation dictates keeping one's mouth shut.

When the Governmental Accounting Standards Board did a major study of performance measurement in the states, it discovered that "people were particularly fearful of new measurement systems," Program Manager Wilson Campbell says. "In one state they described it to us as a deer- in-the-headlights reaction."

In fact, a few months ago when we suggested in a speech that technology program managers shouldn't be turned into scapegoats when they admitted that a problem had cropped up, a member of the audience accused us of being hopelessly out of touch with the real world. Scapegoating, he indicated, is an integral part of government service.

OK, so maybe we were being a little simplistic. But we still feel absolutely confident that the more managers are allowed to acknowledge impending failures without concern that they'll be throttled or their program will be cut, the better off any government will be. As Lynne Ward, director of the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget in Utah, tells us, "It's not a good idea to bash these people, because eventually people get tired of getting bashed. It's very demotivating. And they'll look for someplace where their talents will be better appreciated."

So then, how can governments help to lessen their gotcha quotient? One solution is to require managers to report on progress with reasonable frequency. If they only provide data on a yearly basis, there's a powerful incentive to put off disclosing a flurry of bad news until it's turned into a blizzard.

Kansas' Chief Information Officer Don Heiman, for example, told us that he receives mandatory reports on projects every two months. As a result, project managers are inclined to seek his input at the earliest signs of trouble, on the theory that it's better to tell him when a project has gone 1 percent over budget, than to wait a few more weeks when it's 3 percent over budget. "And when they come to me, they don't come to me with a sense of fear," he says. "They come to me early because they want to be successful."

Another key is to avoid making automatic, formulaic assumptions without proper analysis of the data provided to members of the executive or legislative branch. Austin, for example, identifies the names of people responsible for each activity and program in its performance reports. Naturally, this led to some fear that the people listed would be automatically blamed for any shortcomings in program results. Fortunately, the city saw that coming, and, according to Budget Officer Charles Curry, "we made it clear that the results of a program don't translate directly into conclusions. The information we gather just tells you that there is something going on, and you need to find out more. It doesn't tell you what is going on and why." As a result of this approach, the fear factor was significantly diminished in Austin.

At bottom, however, the best hope for creating an open atmosphere is in support from the top. This can be particularly tricky in legislatures where, as Lynne Ward says, "many feel like their role is to oversee the executive branch and place blame."

Washington State has done a particularly good job at eschewing finger pointing in its executive branch. For example, when it was developing its electronic filing system for business taxes, Project Manager Dave Kirk was reassured by then-CIO Steve Kolodney that he didn't run any risk in the project. "If your team makes it, you're all going to be heroes." Kirk says Kolodney told him. "And if it doesn't, you're all going to receive accolades for trying."

This message has been repeated through much of Washington's government via the state's governor, Gary Locke. He's told his managers that they should take risks, keep close track of progress and not worry about being lynched--unless, of course, they genuinely deserve it. "We shouldn't be afraid of developing a prototype and testing it out," Locke has said. "If it turns out to be wrong and we need to make some changes, we'll go ahead and do it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Smart Management