How to Insult Government Workers

There are lots of problems with pay for performance, but one of the most salient is that it implies that employees are slackers.

The current penchant for systems that evaluate educators and hold them accountable for student learning brings to mind a powerful learning experience I had in my early years as auditor of Kansas City, Mo. I was having real problems with my office's productivity: Audits were too few and took too long to produce. Since I was entranced by all the various management reform theories of the day, pay for performance seemed the obvious answer. So I announced an elaborate plan to pay my auditors based on the quality and quantity of the work they produced.

It was a disaster. What I did undermined, rather than helped, productivity. Collegiality and teamwork tanked, and it was clear to the auditors that the only thing that I thought mattered to them was money. A spirit of public service and a commitment to the mission of the office and to each other are powerful motivators, and I gutted that. Fortunately, I'm a quick study. I figured out that I'd screwed up and reversed course, but it took a while to restore trust.

 Read the April issue of Governing magazine. 

There are lots of problems with pay for performance, but one of the most salient is that it is insulting -- it implies that employees are slackers. If organizations truly think the people they've hired aren't working as hard as they should, they have bigger problems than how to design the right compensation package. People work for bosses, and they work better for better bosses. Beyond that, productivity experts will tell you that problems in organizational performance are almost always the result of poor systems design. Or as Governing contributors Ken Miller and Bill Bott have put it, "It's the pipes, not the people."

In public schools, pay for performance undercuts a far more powerful incentive: the love of children and of helping them learn. No one sets out to be a public school teacher because he or she is driven by the need to make a lot of money. That motivation is likelier to be held by corporate chieftains and hedge fund managers. And therein lies the problem. Many of the people driving education reform today are from the corporate sector, and they can't conceive of people who view the world differently than they do. They think problems in education result from the lack of proper accountability and reward systems and insufficient competition.

I recently spoke with several groups of public administration graduate students at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington. I asked them what motivated them to enter public service. None of them mentioned money. Some quite literally wanted "to save the world," and all of them wanted to work at something honorable, noble and bigger than themselves. Quite by accident, my own son, now 23 and a graduate student in creative writing, found himself teaching eighth-graders at an inner-city charter school during a year off between his junior and senior years of college. The thrill of watching the kids respond to poetry made him want to be a teacher. As he put it, "Seeing this love for poetry firsthand, by people unaware of it, convinced me of its power and placed in me a conviction for not just writing, but teaching as well."

For people like the students at Evans and my son, accountability systems are important, of course, but leadership and organizational culture matter so much more.

Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City