Management & Labor

Managing Performance: People Power

The power of people to improve the way government works was the recurring theme of Governing's annual management conference, held September 17-19, 2002, in Austin, Texas. The program dialogue moved beyond the nuts and bolts of measuring performance to the finer points of using measures to motivate and improve performance.
by | January 2003

The power of people to improve the way government works was the recurring theme of Governing's annual management conference, held September 17-19, 2002, in Austin, Texas. The program dialogue moved beyond the nuts and bolts of measuring performance to the finer points of using measures to motivate and improve performance. In particular, participants discussed the role that individuals play in conceiving, designing and implementing effective management strategies.

Public management usually requires careful attention both to the people who work for a government and to those whom government serves. In the words of Johanna Allyn, a manager for the Department of Social Services in Hanover County, Virginia, "Everything we touch involves human beings. How you say what you say has never been more important."

"Managing Performance 2002," which was sponsored by AMS, Microsoft, Northrop Grumman Information Technology and SAP, along with HP, Maximus, PBViews and Weidner Consulting, drew 400 officials from 43 states and dozens of cities, counties and regional governments.

Given the imminent wave of baby-boom retirements from government at all levels, it was not surprising that a number of speakers addressed the issue of how to recruit and keep the best people.

A partial answer to that question came in the form of dozens of student conference attendees from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. The conference was convened by Governing in cooperation with the two schools.

In a plenary session on future government leadership, Iowa Personnel Director Mollie Anderson presented dramatic statistics showing that in the next three years, 30 percent of state workers nationwide are expected to retire. In a few states, such as Maine, California and Virginia, the challenge is even more pressing with more than 40 percent of workers eligible to retire by 2004. Anderson, who had just completed her service as president of the National Association of State Personnel Executives, cautioned states to avoid responding to their current widespread fiscal problems with measures such as early retirement initiatives and hiring freezes, steps that could compound the shortage of experienced and talented employees.

With so many current government leaders and workers on the verge of retirement, attracting new recruits is essential. But it may not be easy. Edwin Dorn, dean of the LBJ School, lamented the bad rap given to government work. "There has been a tide that says, 'Government is not worthy of our best and our brightest,'" he said. "It is a message that is particularly insidious."

To change that image, Anderson suggested that agencies focus on the positive. "We can't offer cars or country club memberships or large bonuses, but it is very honorable work and it is inspiring," she said. "In the past, we have not done a good job of selling ourselves." Dick Chilcoat, dean of the Bush School, expressed confidence in the potential of the student generation. "The rising generation is capable of following in our footsteps," he said. "We need to help them along and get out of the way."

INITIATING CHANGE

From conceiving of a new idea or project to designing and then implementing it, the importance of the individual was highlighted again and again. Often the impetus for better management comes from one individual leader. In Hanover County, Virginia, that jump-start was provided by Donna Douglas, director of the Department of Social Services, who attended Governing's 2001 management conference in Baltimore. She came back from the conference with new ideas to improve the way she managed her already high-performing department.

"I was managing successfully, but I was not addressing the future," she said. "I had to think differently about what I was doing." In the following year, Douglas changed her management style from micromanagement to a team-focused approach. She focused on human capital as an asset, energizing her workforce and eliciting a higher level of performance. "Anybody can do this," said Douglas, "and it will not cost one additional dollar to implement."

San Jose's emergency management system, which received national accolades even before September 11, 2001, also was instituted at the behest of one individual. City council member Alice Woody grew up in Kansas, where tornado training and drills were a part of life The lack of any such emergency preparation in San Jose concerned her, and she devoted an initial $50,000 of city funds to get a program going. Frances Edwards, director of emergency preparedness, then developed the program into a nationally recognized model, training 1,300 citizens and employees in preparedness.

The role of leadership in bringing about significant change was emphasized by Pennsylvania's chief information officer, Charles Gerhards. He described this concept as "gubernatorial gravity." "The governor can make planets glide through the universe with predictability and precision," Gerhards said. "No gubernatorial gravity means chaos." He cited as his example former Governor Tom Ridge's brainchild, the Pennsylvania Integrated Justice Network. The integrated criminal justice system grew out of a request by several agencies for funds to build independent radio systems. The governor insisted on funding only one system, thereby forcing the agencies to work together.

DESIGNING MEASURES

Leadership matters, but even the most enthusiastically championed project ideas need solid design to succeed. Shelley Metzenbaum, director of the Environmental Compliance Consortium, emphasized the need to pick appropriate outcome measures to ensure an effective program. "If you really want to make a difference, you need to think about outcomes." Metzenbaum used the example of cleaning up the Charles River in Boston. Previously, environmentalists had been measuring activities such as the number of inspections. Once they started concentrating on actual pollution levels at specific points in the river, they were able to identify illegal polluters that hadn't been on the list to be inspected. Once those polluters were stopped, the river's cleanliness improved dramatically.

Steve Morgan, Austin's city auditor, and Verma Elliot, of the Texas state auditor's office, also stressed the need to choose outcome and output measures carefully--and then to test them to be sure they actually measure what they intend to. "As you look at the relevance of the measures, think: 'What is this program trying to accomplish?'" Morgan said. He cut out seven of every 100 city budget measures because they were not relevant to the city's goals.

It is far more complex to devise successful performance measures in the public sector than in the profit-driven private sector. The interaction of different people and public interests in the process of crafting a system of performance measurement produces a real challenge in determining what to measure. That complexity is particularly evident in the area of criminal justice. Harvard University Professor Mark Moore described the quandary, outlining the conflicting goals of reducing crime and achieving justice. Reducing crime is certainly a key measure, but the manner in which criminal justice agencies and their representatives conduct themselves must also be taken into account. I

NSTITUTIONALIZING THE FOCUS

Once measures have been agreed upon and designed, they need to be implemented and integrated into the culture of the office, department, division, agency or jurisdiction. Depending on the program and the agency, implementation may begin at different levels.

If a government chooses to use the balanced scorecard as an implementation strategy, for example, implementation must come from the top. Deborah Kerr, of the Texas state auditor's office, explained that the balanced scorecard is only effective when it is adopted by top leaders, who use it as the organizing principle--the agenda--of management and leadership in the agency. It cannot be initiated by middle management or at a grassroots level. To be effective, the scorecard must pervade all areas of work and not be seen as simply an administrative tool.

Brooke Myhre and Deborah Powell of San Jose's city government talked about a different approach that emphasizes the importance of implementation by and among front-line employees. San Jose's system, Investing in Results, puts the focus on the customer. "You can't just do it from the top," said Myhre. "The key to success is making sure that labor is involved at all the critical points."

Political transitions can pose particular administrative challenges. Jim Chrisinger of the Iowa Department of Management shared his experience in preserving a performance measurement and management focus through a major government transition. In Iowa, 30 years of executive control by Republicans ended in 1998 when the state elected a Democratic governor. That change brought a significant number of new state officials and employees into government, making veterans uncertain how deep the change would permeate into ongoing programs and initiatives. Chrisinger talked about using strategies such as statutory authorization for important programs, documentation of routine processes and identification of important players to ensure that Iowa's emphasis on performance measurement would survive the transition and flourish under the new political leadership.

GOVERNING Logo
Anya Sostek  |  Former Correspondent
asostek@gmail.com

Join the Discussion

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

More from Management & Labor