A New Strategy to Improve Government Performance

Feb 05, 2018

A recent National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) report Improving Organizational Health and Performance in Government by a special panel of Academy fellows describes a vision of a federal government transformed into an organization that:

  • learns from experience,
  •  constructively engages employees at all levels in this shared enterprise, and
  • continually strives toward higher standards of excellence in achieving its many prescribed missions and policy objectives. 

It is one thing to envision, another thing to achieve.  The panel’s challenge was to develop a realistic strategy that could, over time, realize such a change.  They understood that changing one of the largest, most complex organizations in the world requires a learning process that will stretch over many years and multiple Administrations.  However, they also proposed that the elements of this approach be put in place soon.  And, they proposed steps that the current Administration could take now to achieve near-term successes while establishing a learning process that would facilitate agency performance improvement strategies and inform future actions.

The panel’s proposed strategy would build on the existing federal performance framework’s strengths, extending its reach and impact from the executive suites to agency operating units. 

Because the federal government is large and diverse, a one-size-fits all prescription is unlikely to work.  Instead, the panel suggests individual agencies take primary responsibility for improving capacity to perform their various missions and hold themselves accountable for improvement.  Because the knowledge basis is limited, agencies would be encouraged to innovate and evaluate approaches tailored to their circumstances.  The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) could play an important catalytic role in facilitating and supporting agency efforts, working with the President’s Management Council (PMC) and with support of the Performance Improvement Council (PIC), to ensure that learning is spread across government.

The first element of the proposed strategy would use existing data to assess and diagnose the state of agency and unit-level organizational health and performance.  Proposed first steps include using existing data to assess and diagnose the state of unit-level health and sources of any identified management problems, making these assessments the basis for actions to improve organizational capacity and performance.

A second strategy element would develop a learning-based approach to using these assessments to strengthen organizational capacity and performance.  First steps include mobilizing peer-manager networks to transfer knowledge and lessons about performance improvement across organizational units as part of a remedial strategy and establishing a system of continuous live contact with employees at all levels through shared performance dashboards, on-line forums, and other means of continuous engagement on how to improve mission delivery.  The panel also recommends that agencies hold unit managers accountable for developing Unit Development Plans that specify what constitutes “organizational health” for their unit and planned actions to improve it.

The third strategy element would help managers make effective use of a flood of new data relevant to their operations by giving them tools to access, analyze, and apply those data, as well as the skills to manage in this new data-rich environment.  Proposed first steps include training and mentoring managers to upgrade their skills in identifying and using administrative and other performance indicators to support improved management and service delivery and encouraging communities of practice within and across agencies.

Executing such a strategy will be no day trip – it will be more like an odyssey.  Achieving the panel’s vision of organizational health and performance requires a cold-eyed appreciation of how hard and long the journey will be.  To succeed, the federal government will need a process that encourages agencies to test and adapt elements of the strategy and to learn from that experience what it takes to engage people at all levels in a shared striving toward higher standards of performance.

* Dr. F. Stevens Redburn, Professorial lecturer, Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, George Washington University.  This is another in a series of posts based on Organizational Health and Performance in Government, a white paper written by a special panel of National Academy of Public Administration fellows.