At the recent (2009) ASTD International Conference, I had some great conversations with a performance consultant in South Africa–Bill Sewell. Bill was busy trying to tap into US Government contacts to find out our experience with performance consulting. With South Africa’s transition to a new President (Jacob Zuma) and an effort to be more results-focused, he was looking at what lessons we may have learned in that arena. Bill wanted to know what US Govt. organizations were doing with performance consulting.
And that question made me stop and think. The track record of performance improvement within government, at least on a broad-based level, isn’t that impressive within the US. Of course, the US Coast Guard, due to their initial involvement with Joe Harless and then Paul Elliott, has probably been doing performance across the entire organization longer than any other governmental entity in the US. But the Navy dismantled their Human Performance Center (that was starting to do some great work by the way).Other government offices have small scale initiatives or maybe something going within an agency or office—and they’re showing good results but it usually isn’t long-term and across an entire department. And while there has been lots of talk (like GPRA—Govt. Performance and Results Act) and show, I’m not so sure it’s resulted in a lot of what we’d identify as performance improvement. One government executive once remarked to me that GPRA was another set of hoops to jump through.
Now this isn’t the traditional opportunity to beat up on government employees as being inefficient or incompetent. I think the larger issues with the lack of a true performance focus at least within the Federal Government of the US have to do with the inability to have an honest set of business objectives. It’s too easy for Congress (or political pressure from various sources) to change initiatives or demand “action” so as a result, what we’d call “business goals” are often contradictory and the need to show activity often outweighs the reward for accomplishing something. Take the example of TSA (the folks you probably know as the baggage checkers at the airport). It’s physically impossible to catch 100% of all dangerous items in bags—it can’t be done. The best anyone can do is spot somewhere in the 90’s percent and then build in redundancy (body searches, locked cockpit doors, Air Marshalls on board random flites, databases of suspects and so on). But Congress simply won’t allow TSA to set a goal of only catching 95% of all dangerous items in bags.
Additionally, I would argue that the tendency of elected officials at all levels is to jump in after a mistake or crisis, look for culprits to blame and then micro-manage. I find it interesting that one of the most successful US government agencies around (the US Mint) achieved that consistent level of performance by trading financial support (reducing the federal budgetary commitment and becoming more dependent on generating their own funds) for more independence and less oversight. This approach involved setting clear strategic direction for the Mint but giving them much more freedom in how they achieved those goals (and reduced the degree of interference operationally and strategically).
Being a performance consultant in government, despite the political lip service paid to performance and results, sounds like an extremely tough job to me—especially for work at a high level.
Joe Willmore, President