When 'Stat' Programs Meet the Ossified Enterprise

All the measurements and accountability sessions in the world can miss the boat, writes Feather O'Connor Houstoun, if they don't inspire the redesign of broken systems.
February 20, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

During my stints in state government, I spent 16 years wrestling with state agencies ranging in size from 200 to 25,000 employees. The game is change: better client outcomes, better service, better productivity, and better value for taxpayers.

Recalling an experience I had as secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare, my interest was piqued by the recent friendly exchange about performance measurement between Bob Behn and Stephen Goldsmith in this column. I think one point deserves much more emphasis: All the measurements and accountability sessions in the world can miss the boat -- or even do a lot of damage -- if they don't inspire the redesign of broken systems.

Behn cautions that the suite of performance innovations he dubs "PerformanceStat" fall short if they fall into lurking traps. These include becoming a rote management exercise, and missing the sweet spot between confrontational and soporific.

Goldsmith ups the ante, pressing the need to make performance measurement penetrate the leadership team (upward), spread horizontally across line agencies and nongovernmental delivery agents (horizontally), and drill into the actual operations of agencies (downward).

The reality that faces the leaders of many public bureaucracies are processes so ossified that no amount of painful scrutiny of performance stats is going to break the logjam. On the other hand, the solution is often hiding in plain sight.

Consider my experience. Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare was chronically unable to bring its job-vacancy rate below 14 percent. As you might imagine, I had a difficult time convincing the governor's budget office that I should be allotted more staff.

The response was nothing but defensive finger-pointing among program offices needing to fill vacancies, human resources staff feeling unappreciated and unsupported, and the conclusion of the governor's staff that we were just complainers unable to straighten out our own shop.

The reality was so clouded that our new HR director was skeptical that we even had a problem until he mapped the process and counted the requisite days to close a hire. Absolute best case, it was a minimum of 15 weeks, and typically was indeed the 24 to 30 weeks that program staff were claiming.

I made the following pitch to the governor: Give me six months to fix the vacancy problem, or the governor would rescind the vacant positions. We did not quite make that deadline, but we did reduce the vacancy rate in the department to below 6 percent for the first time in its history, routinely filled positions in eight weeks, and achieved a net gain in positions filled of 11 percent.

The hiring process did not become more efficient by cutting corners. We didn't add people to speed up the process. Nor did we abolish the civil service commission. We didn't quit doing position classifications. We didn't hire people on paper without rigorous interviewing. People didn't work harder; in fact, we made the job easier for everyone.

Top management in the department identified high-achieving staff from both program offices, and HR and said this was not about "gotcha," but about fixing the most broken system in the department. The hiring process improvement team broke through the years of acrimony to design a radically streamlined process. The final payoff was a wholly new level of partnership and collaboration between the HR and its program clients.

The truly extraordinary thing about this transformation was that most of the changes were really obvious:

o Posting positions the moment someone gave notice (instead of waiting until the person was off the payroll and the position was in fact "vacant")

o Running steps concurrently rather than sequentially (why wait for a civil service list of candidates before identifying interview dates?)

o Eliminating steps such as supervisory reviews of routine classification actions

o Eliminating the delay of mail (it was taking three days for paper to move between our building and the civil service commission across the parking lot) by setting up a mailbox at the commission that an HR clerk could check twice a day

o Making a point of active recruitment outside the department, so we were not just poaching within the same talent pool

o Exploiting the new management approach in the governor's office to allow departments to hire within authorized complement without getting approval for each position

Result: The department's HR performance-stat tool -- the Position Activity Log -- moved from being the war ground for disputes and blame to the starting point for communication and problem solving.

Okay, so if it wasn't rocket science, why hadn't it happened before? Why had countless executives (including myself) flogged the numbers and the staff but didn't see that, in Steve Goldsmith's words, we were "speed walking in place"?

All the parties had to stop focusing on the numbers and unpack and dissect the problem. Management had to empower staff to take the process apart and reassemble it, and give them breathing room to do so.

If a process as superficially straightforward as hiring staff eluded this simple realization, how much more critical it must be to leaders who want to see order-of-magnitude improvements in performance in complex organizations.