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The Government Has to Learn to Use Data Effectively

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

By Howard Risher
December 10, 2019

Reading reports on the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act can trigger the erroneous impression that agency performance rides on a handful of high level people: an Evaluation Officer, a Statistical Official, a Chief Data Officer, a Chief Privacy Officer, a Chief Performance Officer and, “Other relevant staff.” The government has tried for 25 years to make certain agencies are meeting their performance goals, so adding a few more overseers can’t hurt.

However, when the National Academy of Public Administration asked a panel of recognized thought leaders to consider what’s needed, they concluded, “A strategic reorientation that makes front-line managers the focal point . . .will pay the greatest performance dividends and reduce future risks of operational failure.” In a 2018 white paper, Strengthening Organizational Health and Performance in Government, the Academy’s Standing Panel on Executive Organization and Management highlighted a core problem as, “Frontline managers are not leveraging data to inform decisions.”

Using the data would mean managers encounter operational issues that prompt decisions and changes they expect to correct or improve results.

The problem has been acknowledged in the research literature for years. One of the better discussions is a 2015 David Ammons article, “Getting Real About Performance Management.” To quote from the article, “A set of performance measures is a tool.” Data has little value until it is used to guide operational decisions.

Further, in true high performance organizations today employees are empowered and expected to make job-related decisions when problems first surface. Textbooks picture interlocking, cascading goals. Metrics help employees and their managers track progress in achieving the goals. Companies generate a wealth of operational data that are easily available and used routinely by frontline workers. Few agencies at any level of government have a comparable work environment.

This problem goes back decades. Government employees learn very early how to behave at work, what they need to do to be successful and what they need to avoid. They learn the unstated boundaries that govern permissible actions. Psychologists refer to this as a psychological contract. The contract changes subtlety at each career stage but throughout employees’ careers it governs how they perform their jobs. (Realistically people develop a similar understanding that governs all their interactions.)

Researchers as far back as the 1960s have discussed the idea of a psychological contract and the role of emotions and attitudes that drive employee behavior at work. A Google search produced over 90 million hits but the construct has been practically ignored in the public administration literature.

Although the idea is intuitively clear, as with many constructs, the definition is still debated. The literature focuses on the dynamics of the relationship between an employer and its employees. One definition of the contract encompasses the mutual perceptions of the employer and employees and their mutual obligations at work toward each other. A caveat is that factors external to the work relationship play a role; in the government context that includes unions and public opinion.

The NAPA conclusion reflects the reality of the contract as it is understood by managers and supervisors in far too many government organizations. To be sure, there are jobs where snap judgments and decisions are expected, but those are exceptions. More commonly, there is a, “Culture of compliance,” a phrase prominent in another NAPA report, and defined as a work environment where complying with rules, written and unwritten, is more controlling than the goal of success.

Researchers frequently focus on employees and their reaction to a breach in a contract. That gives emphasis to the dynamics of the employer-employee relationship and the importance of how an employer manages the relationship. Government budget deficits sometimes make violating the contract unavoidable. The core issue when that happens is communications between leaders and employees.

Recently I asked a manager in an agency that is experiencing financial problems for comment on what has transpired since the 2008/9 recession:

“I believe [the agency] has changed in a number of ways in the last 10 years. Worker sentiment has been inflamed by our leaders’ insistence on implementing processes based on applications created by people who have never done the job. The problem is, that if you follow the prescribed work process and fail, your actions are micromanaged to prove that you failed. If you rely on what you’ve learned and get the job done, you are chastised for not following the process. If you rely on what you’ve learned and don’t get the job done, you are chastised for not following the process. So workers just do what they are told and don’t care if it works.”

That is from an experienced manager; the agency generates piles of performance data. It could be at any level of government. When employers rely on top-down control, dictating performance expectations, the message is clear—management does not trust or value employees.

His statement echoes the way workers were supervised in the first half of the last century. As recently as 1991 a book on improving performance was entitled, Driving Fear Out of the Workplace. In today’s work environment those agencies that rely on top-down management lose the commitment as well as the benefit of the ideas of workers who could be instrumental in improving operations.

The contract in high performance organizations has not been subject to the same scrutiny. However, related research suggests the importance of clear performance expectations, high mutual trust and respect, job security, ongoing dialogue, emphasis on coaching and development, etc. It would be valuable to document the psychological expectations that motivate employees to commit to continuous improvement. It’s crucial that both parties remain confident the other party will deliver on their promises. Data plays a vital role when it is available and routinely used in local decisionmaking.

Public employers will have to address NAPA’s conclusion to realize significant performance gains. That will be a difficult transformation. McKinsey consultants argue a key is involving employees at all levels to secure their buy-in to the need for change. The state of Tennessee invested three years in training and modifying the reward system to support the change in management. Leadership from the highest levels is essential so everyone knows it’s a priority. A recommended step is to initiate regular small group discussions to identify current practices that impede improved operations.


Author: Howard Risher PhD writes from a 40-year career in consulting that includes clients from all sectors including the UN and the OECD. He focuses on creating a work experience where employees are engaged and committed to achieving their employer’s goals. He is the author of several books including Primer on Total Compensation in Government, published by the IPMA-HR.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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