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Paradigm Shifts in Public Administration – Toward New Benchmarks and Best Practices

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

Column 4: Toward New Performance Management

By Siegrun Fox Freyss

The term “performance management” implies a modern, top-down organizational setup. It suggests control over employees and over the bureaucracy. But there are changes underway that are trending toward postmodern approaches. This column focuses on emerging changes in managing employees, while the next one will cover innovations in managing whole organizations and work flow.

The question of how to manage employees to increase productivity has occupied thinkers since the rise of modern business administration and public administration in the 19th century. Classical thinkers, like Frederick Taylor, thought to increase performance by dividing work between managers and laborers, closely supervising the laborers’ work, providing training, and tying pay to individual performance.

Need psychologists, like Abraham Maslow and Douglas McGregor, argued that performance could be improved by structuring work in such a way that it would satisfy the higher emotional and intellectual needs of employees. Chester Barnard and Robert Merton drew attention to the concept of organizational culture, which could strengthen high performance or work against it depending on the informal norms and habits at a worksite.

In contingency theory, Paul Lawrence and Jay Loersch advanced the idea that there was no best way to high performance. Instead, the level of performance was contingent on certain conditions, such as the complexity of the work and the qualifications of the employees. Table 1 summarizes the arguments in a nutshell. Actually, the routine versus complex tasks should be seen as the endpoints of a continuum; likewise the distinction between inexperienced and experienced employees. The continuum allows for a more nuanced analysis that gets lost when the endpoints are treated like mutually exclusive categories.

 

TABLE 1:   MANAGERIAL OVERSIGHT CONTINGENT ON EMPLOYEES’ KNOWLEDGE, SKILLS, AND ABILITIES, AND ON THE NATURE OF THE ASSIGNED WORK
Tasks to be accomplished

Employees inexperienced or untrained

Employees experienced and had professional training

Routine

management needs to provide training

very little supervision

Constantly changing or complex

  close supervision

some supervision

 

In subsequent years, performance evaluations were developed to assess employees’ work effort, to diagnose weak and strong areas, propose ways to improve performance, and hold employees accountable.

Many voices, including Edwards Deming, have criticized the individual performance appraisal as counterproductive and inimical to group cohesion. Considering the complexity of modern and postmodern jobs, many employees have to work in teams and the individual evaluation may damage social bonds. Also, employees may try to hide deficiencies rather than seek help. This reaction is especially understandable when pay raises are tied to evaluations. However, employees are not the only ones disliking appraisals. Many supervisors have problems with them as well.

However, the competitive performance culture is strong in the United States, and performance appraisals are here to stay. But the evaluation can be approached in a way that it becomes more acceptable both to employers and employees, as well as more effective in raising productivity and employee commitment. The basic shift is to focus on mentoring and learning, and to avoid dwelling on employees’ deficiencies. As the 2010 U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) publication titled How to Build a Mentoring Program states, “Mentoring is both a ‘Get and Give’ experience with the goal of providing a rich and rewarding experience for both partners.”

The first column in this series suggested vertical learning partnerships, with supervisors learning the use of high-tech tools from their subordinates, while transferring institutional insights, professional knowledge and leadership skills to the junior partner. Horizontal learning partnerships within agencies and across agencies can also be productive. To harness such energy, OPM has embarked on a new governmentwide initiative, called GovConnect that is designed to “foster a one government environment of collaboration and knowledge-sharing.”

The literature on mentoring and learning emphasizes the importance of good communication skills to achieve a successful transfer of knowledge. The book, People Skills for Public Managers by Suzanne McCorkle and Stephanie Witt, provides details on how this transfer can be accomplished. The manual “Customer Service,” available on the website of the Department of Human Resources, county of Los Angeles, shows how to achieve excellent performance in employee interaction with the public.

Two important issues related to the management of employee performance are retention and workforce morale. A survey of state and local governments, conducted by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence in 2011, found that retaining staff needed for core services was one of the top workforce challenges facing state and local governments. Low employee morale was another one. Other research has shown that mentoring can improve the organizational climate and retention.

What is postmodern about the technique of mentoring? One result is the reversal of traditional, top-down management or at least a flexible approach to the acquisition and teaching of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs). One can also add the more collaborative undertone that mentoring and the learning exchange imply. The future is about betterment, about ways to make the workplace more productive, while simultaneously making work a meaningful experience – mentoring holds the promise of these dual goals.

But mentoring does not work for all employees. There are some conniving individuals who are determined to use their job for personal gain and not for public service. Also, some employees are simply unproductive. They may be compulsive talkers or compulsive in the use of social media during working hours. Such individuals may benefit from goal setting. If it does not work, they may need to be warned, applying the usual steps of progressive and affirmative discipline. (I have no postmodern solution for addictive behavior on the job.)

The unproductive use of the Internet has tempted employers to use high-tech capabilities to watch over employees. In a return to the mechanistic paradigm of Taylorism, computers can be programmed to record keystrokes, lengthy unexplained pauses in computer use, or visits to websites unrelated to work. When mentoring is combined with monitoring, the partnership may break apart. But it might be necessary to improve the employee’s performance and improve the morale of the work unit. (The productive use of social media will be covered in the next column.)

 

Author: Siegrun Fox Freyss is professor emerita at California State University, Los Angeles. She taught, and still teaches part-time, graduate and undergraduate courses in public administration. She is the co-author and editor of two books on public sector HRM. Other publications appeared as journal articles and book chapters. Fox Freyss received her Ph.D. in Government from the Claremont Graduate University and a Master’s Degree in applied geography from the Technical University, Munich, Germany. She can be reached at [email protected].

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