The Best Performance Initiative? It's the One Valued by Leadership.

There are many effective approaches for improving results and efficiency. It's essential to have buy-in from the top.
April 1, 2019 AT 6:15 AM
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By Andrew Feldman  |  Contributor
A director in the public-sector practice at Grant Thornton
By Michael Jacobson  |  Contributor
Deputy director for performance and strategy for King County, Wash.
By Greg Useem  |  Contributor
Chief performance officer for Alexandria, Va.

Let's say you're the chief performance officer for a jurisdiction or an agency. You've been given an exciting task by your chief executive: Design and implement a performance-management initiative that -- if it works -- will catalyze better results for residents and better value for taxpayers.

Cool opportunity! But what should the initiative look like? For better or worse, you have lots of possibilities. The public-management field has countless approaches to improving results -- an alphabet soup of acronyms and buzzwords.

Based on our experience, however, one criterion above all others should guide you in designing the initiative: Choose the approach that your leadership values most. Do they want to primarily emphasize efficiency, or cutting costs, or accountability for results, or learning and improvement? Do they like to be the visible leaders of improvement efforts, or do they prefer sit quietly with reports and provide direction?

Why is the connection to leadership so important? When leaders strongly value a performance initiative, it leads to a cascade of useful outcomes. One is that everyone in the organization, including busy bureau heads, will know that they need to take the initiative seriously and invest time in it. Another is that it is much more likely to become the way that leadership manages the organization and makes key decisions, turning the initiative into a meaningful, ongoing driver of results.

To help you consider which approach might resonate most with your leadership, here are some of the most widely used ones:

Performance management strategies: A good example is the "PerformanceStat" methodology, such as CitiStat in Baltimore and BlightStat in New Orleans, which involve ongoing, data-driven meetings between leadership and departments to track progress, identify problems and devise solutions. There's also the balanced scorecard, which emphasizes measuring performance in four categories (financial, customer, process and organizational capacity) to provide a comprehensive view of progress and challenges. A third example is a performance dashboard, with regular status reports for leadership.

"Lean" initiatives: These process-improvement efforts involve and empower employees to solve particular performance problems, especially for processes that require lots of handoffs or are slow. Lean emphasizes "customers" and making improvements from their perspective, with a particular focus on reducing waste and inefficiency.

Strategic plans: These clarify the organization's mission, vision, goals, strategies and planned initiatives, with measures to track progress. The plan itself won't drive results, but if it is created with broad input from leadership, staff and stakeholders, it will make clear to everyone where the organization is aiming.

Evidence-based policy strategies: These involve using existing evidence about what works while building evidence where it is lacking. The latter might involve rigorous program evaluation, rapid experimentation or data analysis. The goal is to inform program improvements as well as resource-allocation decisions.

Budget-focused efforts: Examples include "budgeting for outcomes," which aims to better tie resources to the results the organization is trying to achieve. The process starts with identifying the results that matter most to residents and then adjusting the budget accordingly, rather than starting from last year's spending levels and adjusting from there.

None of those approaches, of course, are mutually exclusive. For example, you could create a strategic plan, and then use PerformanceStat to track and drive progress and to identify areas for evidence-building. Then you could create teams (Lean or otherwise) to focus on particularly thorny issues.

We've learned that the right performance approach will vary over time based on leaders' preferences. In King County, Wash., where one of us (Michael Jacobson) is the deputy director for performance and strategy, the county started with a PerformanceStat approach. It focused primarily on improving the community-level outcomes most of interest to the county executive at the time. A new leader was elected during the Great Recession, when there were increased needs and fewer dollars. He changed the focus to efficiency, reorienting toward building a Lean culture.

In Alexandria, Va., where another of us (Greg Useem) is the chief performance officer, the city started with a focus on tracking performance as part of the budget process. In 2012, when a new city manager began using those measures to manage departments, the city's PerformanceStat initiative, AlexStat, was launched. More recently, with a new change in leadership, the focus has shifted to data analysis and research reports around service-delivery challenges, with "deep dives" that produce recommendations for improvement.

Given the importance of leadership buy-in, you can see the mistake that some organizations make by diving first into narrower, more specific questions, such as what set of performance measures to track. Better to start with broader questions: What are leadership's goals around improving performance and what type of initiative would be an effective and valued way to achieve them?

Every organization would like a magic formula for improving results. The best approach will vary over time based on leaders' preferences, changing circumstances, and the level of experience the organization has with its improvement efforts. Just as we want our organizations to develop and sustain a culture of continuous improvement, performance leaders need to embrace the same spirit for our own initiatives.