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Justice, Fairness, Inclusion, and Performance.

A Possible Future for the Federal Government

February 01, 2018

Embarking on any long journey, it helps to have a clear idea of where you expect, or at least hope, to end up. A special panel of National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) fellows frames its advice to the federal government on improving organizational health and performance with this humble observation.

The panel understood that improving the federal government’s capacity to perform will never be the work of a single administration. The government’s current performance framework, imperfect as it is, took many years to construct. And, while achieving some notable results, it has yet to transform the way most federal managers and their staffs do their day to day work. The federal government is not, at least so far, an organization that consistently is able to draw lessons from its experience of what has worked and failed and to adapt quickly to changing circumstances to deliver constantly improving performance.

So, before the panel laid out its proposed new strategy building on what has gone before, the panel projected an imagined future federal government where people at all levels operate on a very different basis. Looking realistically at obstacles to better performance, examining the character and culture of other large organizations that have sustained high performance, and identifying opportunities for improvement now opening up, panel members expressed their vision of a reoriented federal government. They imagined that, over time, a new management improvement approach would transform the government into an organization that learns from experience, constructively engages employees at all levels in this shared enterprise, and continually strives toward higher standards of excellence in achieving its many prescribed missions and policy objectives.

In this imagined future government, managers at all levels will share a commitment to and understand their agency’s mission and strategic objectives. Senior managers will:

  • act quickly on information about performance and ideas for improving performance received from program and front-line managers;
  • systematically track, record, report on, and reward actions taken to address obstacles to better performance identified by managers at all levels of the organization; and
  • facilitate and reward collaboration across organizational boundaries that contributes to better achievement of agency objectives and priority goals, including constructive partnerships with other governments and nongovernmental organizations.

In this imagined future government, line managers responsible for results and working directly with federal partners and the public will:

  • have a clear understanding of how their work contributes to the mission and strategic objectives of the agency;
  • have the analytic tools and training to manage using a rich array of administrative and other data that help them quickly identify and implement improvements to enhance performance;
  • understand why they need to build high-engagement work places, will take action based on data to build engagement, and will be assessed on their unit’s progress;
  • be assessed (and will be able to assess their own work and that of their staffs) based on the contribution of their work to one or more agency strategic objectives and priority goals; and
  • be recognized and rewarded, not punished, for calling attention to and recommending actions to address obstacles to better performance as measured by contributions of their work to one or more strategic objectives and priority goals.

In this imagined future government, those responsible for supporting and sustaining higher performance by operating units also will behave differently:

  • Managers of mission support offices will assess their work (and be judged) based on the contributions their offices make to better performance by program offices in achieving agency objectives and priority goals.
  • The Office of Management and Budget will embrace and execute its central role to create conditions for success by coordinating and facilitating efforts among agencies to improve federal management.
  • The Office of Personnel Management will embrace and execute its central role to create conditions for success by helping agencies build human capital capability.

Achieving ambitious goals – like introducing fundamental change in the federal government – is to say the least challenging. Embarking on such a journey with a clear vision of where we want to go, combined with a cold-eyed understanding of how hard and long the journey will be, seems like the right first step. Having articulated its vision, the NAPA panel then challenged itself to devise a new strategy to realize it. The panel’s advice on this will be presented in subsequent posts.

*Dr. F Stevens Redburn, Professorial lecturer, Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, George Washington University. This is the second in a series of posts based on Organizational Health and Performance in Government, a white paper written by a special panel of National Academy of Public Administration fellows.