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How to improve the performance of the federal workforce

Civilian agencies need to take a cue from the Defense Department and begin focusing their employees on mission instead of process, according to one reader.

The reader was responding to a recent FCW Insider blog post about the federal workplace. In recent months, numerous readers have posted comments suggesting that some federal employees have become so frustrated with the federal bureaucracy that they just stop trying to get anything done.

“The issue is not improving the workforce; the issue is improving the capability of the government to execute its mission,” writes a reader from Washington.

During recent decades, the federal government has slowly hampered the ability of federal managers and employees to carry out even simple tasks such as managing office space or ordering equipment, according to the reader. The same is true with more complicated responsibilities such as measuring and rewarding performance.

“We need to change the operating model in government to focus on mission accomplishment,” the reader writes. “DOD made this change years ago in that they understand that the military industrial base is made up of the branches, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the companies that service military in many forms. DOD looks to the entire organization to accomplish the mission. The rest of the federal agencies need to make this switch.”

Here is a sampling of other comments we have received (comments are edited for length, style and clarity).

Until lack of performance is dealt with by management and leadership, we will continue to cultivate this type of environment. I for one would be happy to see a firing spree and see how that motivates other feds to do their jobs.
— tough-manager

Suggestion: Give employees the opportunity to advance their careers (and salaries) while staying in a job that they like and are good at. … Many organizations could do with a good housecleaning. But even if you are fortunate enough to get one of those rare individuals who is bright enough and cares enough to get the organization running well, they will move on to their next assignment and things will go back to the way they were. Why not allow that rare individual to remain in that position, but still continue to be compensated as if they were being promoted to a higher position? Why must all organizations continue to operate under the Peter Principle and promote people to their own level of incompetence?
— Anonymous

We will not address whether innovation is possible or desirable on a global level; in some situations it is desirable and in others it is not. The biggest problem with innovation is developing an understanding within an organization that not all innovations will work out of the box; that is okay: It is better to try and fail than not to try. We also need to track innovations that we make to see if we can continue to improve after the initial exciting implementation of a new approach.
— Anonymous

I've complained about coworkers sleeping at their desks. Does management make a point to 'run' down the aisles once a day? No! So, when I see a co-worker sleeping, I call their phone! That wakes them up. Sometimes, you just have to take matters into your own hands. Management is either too mired in meetings or does not have the skills to effectively deal with staff, so I'll do it!
T (Baltimore)

As explained in the earlier blog post, our goal is not just to diagnose the problem, but to identify potential fixes. Here are a few issues to consider:

  • Is innovation feasible in the federal workplace? For that matter, is it desirable?
  • To what extent can individual employees engineer change within the given constraints?
  • How can career feds work effectively with political appointees to provide a semblance of stability and to maintain momentum on key programs?

Let us know what you think.

Posted by John Stein Monroe on Jul 14, 2010 at 7:25 PM

Reader Comments

Tue, Aug 10, 2010 Rick

I moved from DOD to USDA after a RIF and found USDA employees much more mission focused and driven to get the job done than anything I saw at DOD. It is not at all uncommon to see several employees still in the office, getting work done, long after the end of their official duty day.

Fri, Jul 16, 2010

About the only time I hear from my manager is when some required but routine function needs to be accomplished. Usually its some required training that’s on his/her performance evaluation and they’re trying to get it signed off two months early. While I keep track of such training and do reserve time to complete it, it makes it difficult to take performance seriously when my manager seems to care only about secondary matters (or being able to brag his/her employees completed the required training early by browbeating and threatening them, all this at the expense of my deadlines). Here’s a novel concept; how about a mangers performance being measuring on the performance of their subordinates to carry out the mission (effective time management being one of them). Then rewarding those who succeed and penalizing those who don’t?

Fri, Jul 16, 2010

At the agency I’m employed at knowing how one fits into the mission is difficult. While I wouldn’t call the environment closed to say it is effectively linked to the external environment is a stretch. The problem is most frontline and middle managers are happy with this arrangement, while upper management seems to just ignore the issue. Applying the concept of being effective and value based is worthless—under such circumstance measuring performance would be arbitrary. This is not good; at best all I can fathom is I’m here to funnel tax dollars to a few well-connected ‘capitalist’? Just who are my stakeholders, I’m not sure. All I do know is this organization resists change and is filled with employees only interested in achieving their high three.

Fri, Jul 16, 2010 James E. Atkinson Dugway Proving Ground

The DoD is not an example of an organization that concentrates on mission rather than process, or an example of an organization with effective business practices.

As noted in the 10th Annual Performance Report Scorecard by the Mercatus Center of George Mason University, the DoD dropped from 7th best agency in business practices overall in 1999 to 23rd out of 24 agencies in 2008 scoring only 8 out of a possible score of 60 in leadership.

As noted in Major Range Test Facility Base Sustainable Development and Business Transformation - A Modified Delphi Study (June 2010), “the continued decline in the effectiveness of DoD’s business practices is due to the business practice choices enacted over the last 10 years”.

In the end, those in leadership positions are directly responsible for the decline in effectiveness, increased bureaucracy, log-jams, and poor performance of employees.

What we must do is change the focus from bean-counting ERP systems to Capacity-focused system as outlined in Major Range Test Facility Base Sustainable Development and Business Transformation - A Modified Delphi Study (June 2010).

The reason being, counter to the ERP mantra, “what gets measured, gets done”, what gets measured gets paperwork shuffled at the very last moment to appear done. Those who do not play the paperwork game properly are shown the door, while those who put together the best paperwork stories at the last possible moment, with the least amount of time impact on those things senior leadership consider more important, are rewarded. It is about bean-counting, not leadership and management.

ERP systems turn every activity into a mathematical measure, and changes are made to meet the metrics. Effectiveness does not matter as long as the numbers match up.

Capacity-focused systems emphasize effectiveness of where an organization stands in relation to where it wants to be. Measuring points indicate actual causes (not symptoms), Levels of development are graded between the min & max possible in that organization and not in comparison with other organizations.

Using Capacity Analysis results, a change management program is put together which addresses all the business needs of the organization.

The problems with the federal workforce in DoD and other Federal agencies are due primarily to poor leadership & management practices, and politics; not the workers.

Poor leadership practices (including increased bureaucracy & concentration on ERP systems) which were put in place by the senior leadership of the individual services, DoD and Congress.

To address these issues requires addressing the leadership & management processes, not bean-counting and finger-pointing when the numbers do not come out right.

JEatkinson, MScIM, MBA, MScCIS, DBA

Thu, Jul 15, 2010

The messages in the comment section, all but one, are non-legible. Folks, please ensure you finish your sentences prior to posting your comments. When you don't finish your sentence, your message is lost. Thank you in advance!

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