The Real Solution to Government’s Performance Problems: Culture Change

The latest management system isn't going to get the job done. Ultimately, it's about leadership and managers.
September 12, 2016
By Howard Risher  |  Contributor
Consultant focusing on public-sector pay and performance

Performance problems in government cannot be solved without addressing an organization's culture. It's understandable when leaders commit to the latest management system that promises to supercharge organizational efficiency. Technology is marketed heavily and is easy to justify; on paper, the implementation seems straightforward. And other agencies have made the same decision. However, its increasingly clear to me, after three decades of dealing with so-called "next generation" management systems, that the investments have not solved government's performance problems.

I learned the basics of culture-change strategy almost 20 years ago. In the 1990s, the District of Columbia's parole and probation offices were making headlines for their poor performance. Stories of parolees committing serious repeat crimes prompted Congress to pull the offices out of the District government and combine them into a new federal entity, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. A prominent visionary was appointed as the first director. My job was to develop the pay and performance systems for the new agency.

As part of the District government, the two offices had been close to dysfunctional. Job incumbents sat behind a desk all day, met with offenders for a few minutes, and then filed reports; little was accomplished. At year-end, their supervisors checked off a series of boxes on a performance-appraisal form, and employees got their step pay increases. It was classic bureaucracy.

The new agency's director understood the importance of getting people on board. In early meetings, he worked with his management team to define a collection of stretch, aspirational goals for the agency. One that stands out was reducing the recidivism rate by 50 percent over three years. He convinced the staff that the goals were achievable, and they were solidly committed.

Culture change was never explicitly discussed. The focus was solely on improving performance. The caseworkers' jobs were redefined, changing the title to community supervision officers (CSOs) and introducing what at the time were considered to be leading-edge practices. The freshly minted CSOs were expected to go into the community and meet with the families of offenders, along with individuals who had regular contact with them, such as police officers and ministers.

I met with small groups of experienced CSOs and their supervisors to define job-specific competencies for the new appraisal system. They were committed to making the new agency a success. We also developed a new salary system based on what was then a new concept, broad salary bands with pay for performance. All of this was a radical change.

Unfortunately, the director ran into political trouble and was forced to resign, and his vision was never fully realized. But for me the lessons learned have served me well in subsequent consulting:

• First, I agree with the experts that culture change is easier in a period of crisis. When an organization has ongoing problems, support for change increases. People need to know why its important.

• People want to be proud of where they work and what they accomplish. When serious problems exist, they will commit enthusiastically to fixing them as long as they trust their leaders and the planned changes make sense.

• It is important for the organization's leaders to make a solid, credible commitment to transitioning to a more productive, healthy organization. Convincing managers to get on board is essential.

• It's also important for leaders to paint a verbal picture of what they want to achieve. Aspirational goals help people remember why they chose their career path.

• Job incumbents are well qualified to serve as subject-matter experts in the planning. Their involvement is crucial for credibility and acceptance.

This is, at its core, a management problem. Personnel policies and systems need to be supportive but are not responsible for energizing the workforce. Changing behavior is central to culture change, and managers are truly key to employee engagement. That, of course, is never easy. But with the right kind of leadership, it is possible for recalcitrant employees to become fully engaged and productive.