Unleashing the Potential of Public Employees

When they're given the metrics, the tools and the chance to contribute, they can work wonders. Denver is showing the way.
November 29, 2017
The Denver Peak Academy teaches city employees to visualize problems and simple solutions. (Benjamin Rasmussen)
By Howard Risher  |  Contributor
Consultant focusing on public-sector pay and performance

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock was on "CBS This Morning" recently to discuss the city's Peak Performance program that he is credited with starting in 2011. The goal, Hancock said, is "to make government fun, innovative and empowering to citizens and employees," and the city's Peak Academy teaches public workers "how to eliminate waste, improve efficiency and ultimately create a higher standard of government." He cited savings to date of over $25 million from the employee efforts.

Denver is solidly committed to metrics and process improvement, and its success with Peak Performance has garnered considerable attention among devotees of public-sector administrative efficiency. The Peak Performance website features departmental performance reports replete with colorful graphs and photos. The clear intent is to celebrate progress, and particularly its workers' contributions to continuous improvement.

The Denver story is important for two reasons. First, it highlights the significant potential that every employer, public as well as private, has to tap their employees' knowledge and insight to improve performance. Research concluded years ago that there is a potential, when the work paradigm is radically changed, to increase productivity by at least 30 to 40 percent. Books have been written, including one I co-authored, on what goes into creating a high-performance organization.

The second reason is possibly more important. Former Peak Academy director Brian Elms told me that city officials learned that their efforts would be successful only when they were invited by departmental leaders. He said he now is "traveling all over the country teaching governments how to create peak academies" -- by invitation, of course.

That is solidly consistent with my consulting experience. The traditional management philosophy relied on close, top-down control. Management did all the thinking. Today successful organizations rely on a very different approach to management, empowering their workers to address work-related problems.

Leaders like Denver's mayor are still rare in government. Many public leaders, elected and appointed, are interested primarily in public-policy issues and have minimal training or experience in management concerns. Leaders need to make initiatives like Peak Performance an organizational priority.

That means employing and supporting a more sophisticated approach to metrics. Dave Ammons of the University of North Carolina School of Government has published frequently on performance management in the public sector. His research shows that performance data are now commonly reported but that too often the information is not used in decision-making to improve results.

Measurement alone accomplishes nothing. The emphasis should be on management and improvement. Comparative data are essential -- the International City/County Management Association's Open Access Benchmarking initiative is great -- for assessing progress and addressing problems that impede efforts to improve results. But that is correctly understood as change management, and its poor track record is well documented.

Two English academics, Alison Reynolds and David Lewis, recently reported research explaining why so many change initiatives are less than fully successful. Their research focused on top-down efforts that involved redefining organizational structures, realigning decision authorities (organizational "governance") and rethinking operational processes.The researchers asked corporate leaders in 20 countries and 25 industries what the biggest barriers to execution of change plans were, and 76 percent cited employee interaction. "In other words," Reynolds and Lewis wrote, "people failing to work together to make change happen."

The core problem, according to the researchers, is that leaders focus narrowly on what they refer to as the "tangible" issues, such as organization structure, technology and decision-making authority, that are discussed in high-level meetings and in reports written for leaders. But those directives promise -- actually threaten -- to change the employee work experience. Employees are very much aware that mandated changes often prompt retirements, alter career plans, force them to establish new working relationships or require mastering new job skills. Those are the "intangibles" that can diminish employee job satisfaction and trigger resistance.

The alternative to the top-down approach is to create a work environment where employees understand that they are expected routinely to address problems. If a task force is given the goals and understands the reasons and any constraints, it will tackle the problem and is likely to develop solid recommendations that balance all considerations. The record is consistent: Organizations benefit when their employees know they are empowered and expected to address job-related problems.

However, that means leaders must give up control. The English researchers heard from the corporate leaders that they were reluctant to do that. They saw it as too risky. At a time when they would benefit from the best thinking from staff, they were hesitant to solicit their help. This is compounded in government by the mistrust so common between political appointees and career employees.

That's all unfortunate but not insurmountable, as Denver has shown with Peak Performance's use of metrics, analytics and employee empowerment. It's essential that public leaders be aware of such success stories and the significant performance gains that are often realized. Everyone wins, including the public, when employees are engaged.