Pushing the boundaries of federal performance

After two and a half years serving in the US Federal Government, it’s good to be back in Whitehall. But while I am enjoying settling into my new role at the Department for Education – not to mention readjusting to the little differences that adorn the UK-US landscape – the memories and lessons of my time in Washington, DC will never leave me.

My DC home was the Performance Improvement Council (PIC), which works alongside the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to advance and expand the practice of performance management and improvement in federal agencies. I’ve been reflecting on some of the biggest lessons I personally and we as a team at the PIC have learned in the last couple of years, as well as some of the upcoming opportunities.

Three lessons…

Firstly, the way we talk and think about performance is changing for the better. There was a time, not too long ago, when the phrase “what gets measured, gets done” was practically a mantra. Performance management was seen as primarily about accountability and hard incentives, while improvement and learning was an afterthought.

But what does it actually mean to go beyond the limited idea that performance is just about measurement? What does it look like to aim for more than compliance, really demonstrate value and build performance capability?  These questions led the PIC team to develop the “Performance Practices and Principles” construct – or “P3” – which you can see summarised in the P3 Playbook. The idea was to use our experience working with diverse Federal agencies to clarify how we talk about what it takes to not only achieve mission results, but actively manage ambitious and complex goals.

Going forward, the playbook will be built out with an online library of case studies, stories and useful learning resources that speak to the needs of programme managers and their teams. And P3 creates a shared language that helps make sure performance practices are used; principles of performance culture are championed; and the legal framework is implemented in a way that helps to improve performance, not just measure it.

Secondly, cross-agency implementation is not easy but it’s worth it. When I came to the PIC I was tasked with helping tackle a problem common to many governments across the world – how should we set ourselves up to solve increasingly complex ‘horizontal’ problems, when government is largely structured in ‘vertical’ organisational silos. The first full set of Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) Goals has been the result and it has been – intentionally – a learning experience. For example, we supported OMB leadership to stand up regular problem solving ‘deep dives’ that ensure consistent and sustained attention both on successes and challenges.  We also partnered with OMB to make the case for and support the establishment of the White House Leadership Development Program, which elevates the importance of enterprise leadership and performance capabilities when it comes to delivering cross-agency goals.

And thirdly, we should never underestimate the power of convening. The PIC occupies a unique space, without any underlying agenda (other than to help improve performance) but with the power to bring together diverse groups to solve problems and create opportunities to improve.  We can never know more about the specifics of an issue than the programme teams working on them every day but we do have useful skills – in facilitation; human-centred design; graphic facilitation; continuous process improvement; Agile methodologies and more – that can make a huge difference in moving a difficult conversation forward.

Time to harness the potential

There are three areas where I see real opportunities for the future, I know the team is going to continue working on these areas and I will be watching with bated breath from across the Atlantic to see how it all pans out.

The creation of the P3 construct certainly forced me to reflect on what it actually means to communicate performance effectively, not just for the purposes of getting the good stories out there but thinking about storytelling techniques as a tool in our performance toolkit. The human brain is riveted to information with high emotional content, yet how many of us in the performance space spend much time thinking about how to construct a compelling narrative around the data we are collecting, analysing and measuring?

Of course decisions should not be driven by anecdote; we are seeking a balance here – as with all the performance practices. Nonetheless at the PIC we embraced the idea that ‘”telling a story with data” should be part and parcel of performance practice. Our investment in building this capability is a great example of how the PIC can push the boundaries of the way we view performance in the federal space, and it is heartening to see many performance teams leading the charge in their own departments as well.

The challenges inherent in collecting, sharing, verifying, analysing and visualizing complex performance data are not trivial. That’s why I’m so excited about the opportunity to marry the energy and innovation in the digital space with performance work in Government. In the last six months the PIC team has both recruited a new digital director and partnered with the Presidential Innovation Fellows to re-imagine how we can use technology to help address some of these common challenges.

Another challenge we faced every day in DC was the sheer scale of the Federal workforce and the attenuated nature of the delivery systems and partnerships critical to delivering impact. In that context the list of potential strategic connections that a central team like the PIC can make from a performance standpoint is almost endless. But we saw particularly important opportunities for greater connection with the evidence and evaluation, and human capital agendas.  The PIC pilots with the Department of Labor and Energy of the Modern Government Management Traits programme, inspired by Google’s Project Oxygen and customised for federal managers are a great example of promising connections being made. The White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team are helping evaluate the impact of the pilot, which has been delivered to over 300 managers who supervise around 1,600 federal staff.

Implementation of this work will fall to my successor – and that’s how it should be. A colleague tweeted recently, “Public service is one massive relay race, once you understand that, you feel much more at peace with your work”.  I am honoured to have taken the baton for a short while and to have had the opportunity to serve in the US Federal Government.  I look forward to bringing some of the ideas, insights and innovations I saw in DC to my new role in the UK.

 

FURTHER READING

  • DC despatch. While there is much that unites the policymakers of London and Washington, DC, very few among them have worked in both cities’ corridors of power. Kate Josephs, however, is an exception. She tells us about her experiences driving performance improvement in both governments – and how she got there
  • Data to delivery. Former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor,  Martin O’Malley, tells us about a new approach to governance and delivery
  • Beltway and beyond. Former senior advisor to two US presidents, Elliott Abrams, shares his perspective on how governments can achieve more
  • Voices of delivery. A selection of government delivery leaders reveal how they seek to implement policy proposals
  • Mission possible: creating a smarter and better US government. Improving the effectiveness of public policies and helping rebuild public trust in government are the twin priorities facing new President of The Volcker Alliance, Tom Ross. But he’s not one to flinch from a challenge…
  • Winds of change. Few understand the mechanics of US elections better than Matthew Dowd.A veteran of both sides of the campaign trail, he tells us about his experiences and why change is coming to America…
  • A doorway to delivery. Kevin Donahue has spent his career seeking to harness the power of data to improve government services. He tells Adrian Brown why good data is not an end in itself, but rather an opportunity to achieve better citizen outcomes
  • Building up the backbone. Renewing the core systems of government is hardly something to set the pulse racing, admits Danny Werfel. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it…