Giving Public Workers the Tools for Efficiency

Instead of outside experts, Denver's mayor is relying on city employees to find savings and deliver better services. The results so far are promising.
by | February 6, 2013 AT 5:00 PM
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock

To succeed in an era of scarcity, public agencies must do more than just measure their performance. Success requires a focus on larger organizational goals that leads to questioning longstanding practices and structures.

After his election in 2011, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock declared that kids, jobs and a safety net for the less fortunate were his priorities. He then launched an initiative called Peak Performance with the goal of meeting those challenges--while saving $10 million annually.

Each agency developed a strategic plan aligned with the mayor's vision. "Value stream analysis" enabled each agency to understand who its customers are, how it delivers value to them and, most important, areas for potential improvement. "Strategic resource alignment" is then employed to identify the organizational size and structure best suited to deliver on the agency's mission.

The jargon may be daunting, but resistance to changing the way things have always been done is a far bigger challenge. Those with government experience are all too familiar with the "wait-it-out" approach many workers take when faced with new ways of doing things that may well disappear after the next election.

That's what distinguishes the Peak Performance approach. Instead of outside experts telling city workers how to do their jobs better, it invests in employees by giving them the tools to solve city problems themselves.

Current plans call for between half and three-quarters of the city's some 10,300 employees to participate in "green belt" training over the next five years. The four-hour session turns the normal government practice of adding programs to address problems on its head, focusing instead on peeling back unnecessary layers that have developed over time and providing the skills to address pressing needs in the context of the city's three main priorities.

Another 180 employees are expected to undertake "black belt" training this year. The intensive four-and-a-half day session provides participants with the analytical skills to identify waste and, most important, eliminate it. After the training, the black belts are expected to propose three innovations and see that two of them are implemented.

Workers identified as "peak performers" leave their agencies for three months to undergo the most intensive training. Upon their return, they spend half their time doing the jobs they previously held and the half of their time training others on the Peak Performance approach.

Employees don't get additional compensation for the training, but it is a credential that enhances their advancement opportunities. Applications for the programs far exceed available space.

Peak Performance met its goal of saving $10 million goal in 2012 and is already on pace to exceed it in 2013. The approach already boasts several achievements.

For example, more police department desk jobs are now being performed by civilian employees. In addition to saving money, the percentage of officers on patrol at any given time has increased from just under half to nearly two-thirds.

And at the city attorney's office, which had been dismissing one or two cases a week due to missing files, new case-management software implemented using the Peak Performance approach eliminated the lost-file problem. Since then, the office's conviction rate has jumped by 9 percent.

There is more to come. Like many governments, Denver a surplus of managers in some departments. Using Peak Performance, a plan is being developed that would add 200 workers to the payroll at no additional cost by shifting the balance between managers and front-line workers where appropriate.

We routinely hear about efforts to "change the culture" of government, but they rarely succeed. Mayor Hancock's Peak Performance approach has a better shot than most because the culture change it seeks comes from city employees rather than being forced on them.

This article has been updated to clarify the extent of the city attorney's office's missing-files problem and how the problem was eliminated.