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Article Article September 9th, 2015

DC despatch: delivering performance improvements in government

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There is more opportunity in the UK to feel close to the actual impact of policy than in the US

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The extra complexity of the US system means that delivery is a more multifaceted challenge

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More space needs to be made for implementation and the kind of practices that deliver impact

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“It is very unusual - to be a non-American working for the Federal Government,” admits Kate Josephs. Normally, positions are reserved for Americans born and bred - no exceptions. So how did she manage it?

“How I got here is one of those accidents of life,” she explains. “My husband got the opportunity to work at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is based in Washington, DC. I was a senior civil servant at the UK's HM Treasury at the time, running implementation of the department's strategic review. Neither one of us were people with international career paths, so to have this opportunity was a total surprise and one we wanted to make the most of. Importantly, being the spouse of someone who works at the IMF meant I automatically received a visa and a work permit.”

That didn't automatically mean she would be handed the key to the west wing of the White House, however. Her green card and visa may have enabled Josephs to work at McDonalds, for example, but the Federal Government would prove harder to crack. In the end, her deep government experience and knowledge of driving impact and performance improvement - in particular from her previous role as deputy director of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit (PMDU) - was enough for her to secure a senior role at the Performance Improvement Council (PIC), a team at the heart of government which focuses on advancing and expanding the practice of performance management and improvement in federal agencies.

Settling in, moving up

Having started work at the PIC in January 2014, Josephs soon set about proving her value. Originally employed to oversee implementation of the FY14-17 cross-agency priority goals, 12 months later she was promoted to become the new executive director, her predecessor having gone on to a role in the DC mayoral administration. She now oversees an organisation that seeks to spread best practice and boost collaboration, all underpinned by the overall ambition to accelerate agency and programme performance improvements.

It's a role in which she can draw heavily on her experiences in the UK. Her time in the PMDU coincided with the prime ministerial tenure of Gordon Brown, and she had lead responsibility for the design and implementation of enhancements to UK performance management policy, including introducing a framework of cross-departmental goals and governance. She and her team also led ‘deep dive', data-driven reviews that drove improved performance in priority areas - from housing, to sport in schools, to home energy efficiency. These experiences left her well-placed to hit the ground running at the PIC, but that's not to say she hasn't come across many differences between the two systems of government - anything but.

“The differences and challenges are many,” she concedes. “This experience has made me reflect on how much more opportunity there is in the UK to feel close to the actual impact of policy - even when you are ensconced in the corridors of Whitehall! Having that connection with frontline impact is just a lot harder in the US Federal Government - not least because the country is huge. Last weekend we drove for six hours straight and stayed entirely in the state of Virginia, but we also crossed many different jurisdictions and it reinforced for me just how many layers of government need to be considered here as we seek to improve outcomes for US communities. Delivery chains are complex and attenuated, often Federal Government's leverage centres on issuing grants or creating regulatory frameworks - the job of connecting that activity to real-world outcomes is not straightforward, but it is fascinating and hugely important nonetheless. ”

This context also creates a very different tone to the conversation around performance. She goes on to point out that in the US each agency has its own set of individual priority goals and that there is less of a culture of central oversight than in the UK. But cross-agency work is nonetheless a key PIC priority. “The administration has a small number of cross-agency, implementation-focused goals - half of these are management-focused, about the good management of government that every agency needs to be driving - smarter IT, shared services, open data and so on,” she says. “And then we have seven mission-focused goals that are cross-agency - a good example is veterans' mental health, which links the work of the Department of Veteran Affairs, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense in improving mental health outcomes for veterans and service members.”

The extra complexity of the US system means that delivery is “a bigger and more multifaceted challenge” than in the UK, continues Josephs. However, that doesn't mean she and her team can't make a difference. “We work in close partnership with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) who, with agencies, have established a solid performance management framework across Government. OMB leadership really do model a consistent commitment to performance at senior level and encourage that senior-level focus on implementation and impact in all Agencies,” she says, “including through convening the network of senior leaders of performance in agencies -performance improvement officers - who together form the council that the PIC team supports.”

“A key part of the PIC team's work, alongside OMB, is to develop and grow a community of practice of the people who work in performance across the federal government. An increasing number of people recognise that they need to understand how to develop good metrics linked to evidence about what works, how to use data to inform senior-level decision-making and how to communicate priorities and the importance of effective implementation throughout organisations. So there is a good groundswell of interest which is something we try and capitalise on.”

Delivering performance improvements

Josephs is a firm believer in working with political leaders to help them grasp the intricate challenges that go hand-in-hand with delivering public services. It's not always a straightforward process as leaders - in the UK, US and beyond - all have many other issues jockeying for their attention. “The nature of politics is such that policy ideas and communications are the fuel that drives government and can sometimes command a very large proportion of attention,” she says. “But I think there is an increasingly firm realisation that more space needs to be made for implementation and the kind of practices that deliver impact - sometimes as simple as just prioritising consistent follow-up and follow-through when decisions are made. And through our work at the PIC with agency teams we have some confidence that we are strengthening  capabilities within the career civil service such that those skills sets and approaches will be used more and more.”

This confidence does not mean she is complacent, however. “Central teams like the PIC and delivery units like PMDU can provide the catalyst for change but it's a two-way street,” she says. “Prioritising delivery without thinking through how it can be embedded in the culture and rhythm of the organisation that owns it means that the risk is always there that it will not be sustained beyond the initial push or through a change in leadership. Getting that balance right is an art more than a science - you have to be flexible and nuanced, depending on the organisation and the individuals concerned. This is crucial for driving sustained change.”

Such insights have helped Josephs settle in and embrace the experience in DC. “It's fantastic,” she says, smiling. “Even on the most testing of days I still pinch myself at the uniqueness of this opportunity.”



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  • Helping governments govern. The ultimate test of any government policy is whether it makes the difference it sets out to achieve, says Adrian Brown

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