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The Overlooked Key to Improved Performance: Culture Change

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Howard Risher
April 21, 2017

This column was triggered when I read the interview “Changing the Culture in Government: A Conversation with Ted Gaebler” on the same day the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB) posted the directive requiring agencies to “Develop a plan to maximize employee performance” as an element of the White House commitment to reforming the Federal government.

The Gaebler interview discusses how he “created a culture that enabled people to utilize many of their talents and expertise inside our government.” The OMB memo focuses on the mechanics of workforce planning, but is silent on steps to motivate employees. The two statements suggest very different management philosophies.global_multicultural

Reading the two sources made me think of a 2010 report from the National Performance Management Advisory Commission which summarized efforts to improve the management of performance. The Commission’s conclusions are important for two reasons: First, the authors argued that the performance gains from the years of investing in systems and metrics were disappointing because “those systems have been superimposed on traditional organizations” where day-to-day management continues unchanged. The report argues, “To make real improvements, organizational culture must also be addressed.” The message was government had ignored forgot the social psychology side of the work experience.

The second reason is that despite the support of an extensive list of state and local government associations, the Commission’s report appears to have been shelved and forgotten. The report is still available on many websites but I found no reports of follow up initiatives. By all reports public agencies continue to be pressured to improve performance.

In the private sector, the importance of organizational culture has been studied now for roughly 40 years. An Amazon search for books on “workplace culture and management” found 5,400 titles. When the words “in government” are added, the number falls to 78 but there is really only one has practical value, Anne Khademian’s, Working With Culture: the Way the Job Gets Done In Public Programs, published 15 years ago. There are books discussing the culture in specific agencies (e.g., Inside NASA and Hoover’s FBI are two) but those do not help to address culture related problems.

Culture is important because it governs behavior in work groups. It influences virtually every interaction of people in performing their jobs. Edgar Schein, considered to be the thought leader on organizational culture, contends “people have to become aware that ninety percent of their behavior is not driven by their personality but by cultural rules.” It affects the time they start work, the tolerance for sexist comments and the way they deal with customers — everything.

Culture’s influence makes it—or should make it—a central consideration in initiatives to raise performance levels. The Advisory Commission had it right. Improved performance depends on employees changing their work related behavior and working relationships. But cultural resistance to change intervenes. That’s likely to be a common reason why the investments in measurement systems have produced disappointing results.

In the business world, high performing companies are known to have a culture where employees focus on achieving desired results. High performing companies are proactive in managing their work culture. As the Commission pointed out, the importance of performance is reinforced “by using a system of rewards, financial and non-financial, and recognition”.

In government, studies by UNC’s David Ammons have found agencies “issue reports about their performance or include measures in their budgets” but that the information is too often not used in “the pursuit of a more favorable level of performance.”

Government’s culture has been a frequent subject for government’s critics. Bureaucratic practices, the way customers are handled, silo management, and risk avoidance are all elements of the culture.

Given the disappointing track record and the many critics, it’s surprising that research on the influence of culture on performance in government is sparse. A search on “research on government work culture” generates millions of hits but digging into the sources listed makes it clear most have little to with people performing their jobs or the management of performance.

It is also surprising that culture is not addressed in reform initiatives. The new OMB directive with its silence on social psychology considerations is typical. Reform is too often moving boxes on an organization chart or, as the Commission discussed, superimposing new technology on an unchanged traditional organization. There are few solid success stories.

The issue, however, is not acknowledging culture is a problem; there is broad agreement that’s true. Instead, focusing on strategies to overcome the problem would seem to be far more valuable. It would also be helpful to study the failed reform projects to understand the reasons.

A suggested simple strategy is to ask employee groups as an early step to identify the barriers to improved performance. Outsiders may have to lead those discussions because they are likely to be critical of management — but employees always have practical suggestions. Employees take satisfaction in knowing their ideas are valued.

Writers have suggested starting with a specific project or problem that has clear, near term goals to realize quick success. That could convince the skeptics to agree to tackle larger problems. Leaders as well as employees need to be confident there is a commitment and evidence the new strategy will contribute to improved results. Companies of course routinely empower employees to tackle problems.

Peter Drucker, the ‘father of modern management’, is credited with the often quoted statement, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If he was discussing government, he might have said “strategy and reform plans for breakfast”. Ignoring the cultural barriers undermines possible performance gains.


Author: Howard Risher has 40 plus years of experience as a consultant to clients in every sector. He has a BA in psychology from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. from Wharton. He is the co-author with Bill Wilder of the new book, It’s Time for High Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize and the Public Sector Workforce. You can reach him at [email protected]

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One Response to The Overlooked Key to Improved Performance: Culture Change

  1. Dr. David Hamilton Reply

    April 21, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    An excellent, concise overview of what ails too many government organizations. “Superimposing new technology on traditional organizations ” is a succinct descrption of what is often attempted with predictably marginal results.

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