Reforms that promise better government performance are like a mirage – always just over the horizon, and rarely living up to expectations. Those thirsty for better outcomes can be forgiven for feeling a bit lost in the desert. A recent report from the World Bank found that in seven different countries, the most common experience with these reforms was one of disappointment.
A new report of the National Academy of Public Administration, Strengthening Organizational Health and Performance in Government offers more reason for optimism. For one thing, it notes how the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) is a cause for some celebration. GPRA disciplined Congress and the White House to think about performance in an incremental way. Rather than tossing aside the new initiative of the previous administration, elected officials have chosen to gradually amend the basic framework of the GPRA. When GPRA was amended in 2010 to become the GPRA Modernization Act, it kept the same basic structure of agency strategic planning and performance reporting, put into statute many of the initiatives of the Bush administration that had worked well, and dropped elements that were judged to have worked less well. That is how policy incrementalism works. You agree on some basic things, keep experimenting at the margins, and modify the framework based on what you have learned.
The NAPA report represents part of an ongoing dialogue among people who care about government performance that has helped to inform that incremental evolution of the US performance framework. It also offers a sneak peek at policy ideas that will to some degree actually shape the public management of the federal government.
The biggest take-away for me is the message that the federal government needs to recalibrate its expectations about how to improve performance. The statutory nature of GPRA and the GPRA Modernization Act, or Presidential initiatives like the Bush-era Program Assessment Rating Tool, makes them inherently top-down, even when the intent is to generate innovation. Key to these top-down approaches is the idea that the problem to be solved is that public employees are too focused on rules and processes and not enough on end-results such as programmatic goals and outcome measures. The new NAPA report does not downplay outcomes, but it also returns attention to the managerial black box. It suggests that black box is not just full of useless rules and procedures, but also the organizational health needed to achieve outcomes.
What does organizational health mean? The report points to two elements.
To improve performance, the new report calls for on the federal government to:
No single element of these recommendations is completely new. The idea of organizational health is implicit in Balanced Scorecard model of management, and was a central topic of study when I was a PhD student at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in the 1990s. The idea of a bottom-up approach to performance is thematically similar to the Clinton Reinventing Government initiative.
So, what, really, is different? My sense is that the idea that organizational health matters is something we all agree with in the abstract, but it has not featured prominently in how we think about public management in practice for the last three decades. Anyone talking about employee engagement could be easily dismissed as ignoring the real issues of performance. The new prominence of organizational health reflects research from private organizations that show how more committed and engaged employees predict better performance. At a time when many public employees may have cause to doubt the direction of the agency, it serves as a stark reminder that motivated employees make for better outcomes.
The other element that is new is the emphasis on the use of administrative data, starting with unit-level survey data, to identify variance in health within agencies. Increasingly, agency leaders will have no excuse not to know about the type of unit-level problems that led to, for example, the VA scandal. In this respect, performance data is expected to help identify areas of risk or potential failure. My own research points to a negativity bias in how elected officials and the public respond to performance – they are much more responsive to stories of bad performance than good. It makes sense to have a management strategy and tools that basic fact.
It is hard to overstate how big a sea-change this is. The report encourages a more balanced notion of public management to be not just about results, but also about the black box that creates those results: “Progress depends also on the strengthening the capacity of operational units to deliver.” It shifts focus away from routines of production and dissemination of performance data (which after 30 years of practice, the federal government is pretty good at) to building routines of learning (which was encouraged by the Modernization Act, with some success).
Past experience should caution us about the potential of new ideas to really change the federal government. But on the other hand, it is the only thing that has, albeit slowly. I hope this new report is noticed by governments who are seriously interested about improving performance, not just talking a good game.
Donald Moynihan is a Professor at the La Follette School of Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Previous academic posts include the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University; the Department of Political Science, Michigan State University; and the Alan K. Campbell Public Affairs Institute, Syracuse University.