Public Domain

Performance Management and the Common Man

April 10, 2017

We’ve been intrigued by – and involved with – the broad area of performance management in the public sector for years. In fact, when David Osborne earned acclaim for the approach almost 25-years ago with his and Ted Gaebler's best-selling book, Reinventing Government, our own work was footnoted.

Though a great deal of the best work on the topic has happened in academia, we’ve discovered that there’s still a great deal to be learned about the performance management field from our own day-to-day lives. Through a variety of common, real-world anecdotes, we can illustrate the challenge of setting performance goals and the importance of focusing performance management efforts on those outcomes.

Consider, for example, youth soccer. Lessons about performance management were learned when our daughter, now 26, was feverishly involved in the sport through her teens. Coaches frequently said that their mission was to build young players. And they also said that their mission was to win games.

To build young players, you of course have to give them a reasonable amount of play time. The players who need the most building, however, tend not to be the ones who can help the most to win games. Accomplishing both of these goals simultaneously is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Public sector leaders can draw from this example: Before an entity starts measuring things and analyzing the measurements, it should carefully think through its missions and goals to make sure that conflicts don’t doom the efforts.

Then there’s the speed vs. quality phenomenon. Nearly all electronics, upon which we depend, appear to be intent on breaking down at regular intervals. We turn to the manufacturer’s technical support department when this happens. And, after spending an unconscionable amount of time on hold, we frequently discover that the technicians we finally reach appear to rush through the conversation—often without leaving time to make sure the fix has taken hold.

We get it. The technicians are attempting to score high in a measurement of the number of clients they can serve in a day. But, when they give their customers short shrift in order to bring that number up, they’re less inclined to deliver a successful outcome. As we wrote in Governing magazine some years back, “For fire departments, response times are a commonly used measure of service quality.” No doubt, arriving to a fire quickly matters a lot. Yet, “the requirement for low response times incentivizes firefighters to drive fast," said Amy Donahue, of the University of Connecticut. “And it has been shown that while speeding saves very little in terms of total driving time, it is much more dangerous—both to those in the emergency vehicle and other innocents who might get in their way.”

The moral: Balancing speed with service may not be easy to achieve, but we believe that it should be the goal.

Occasionally, we hire short-term freelancers to help us finish a product. For some time, we would spend a fair amount of time searching for people who had lots of experience in the topic we were covering. We thought the most important measure of their likelihood to succeed was the experience they exhibited in our topic of inquiry. They were never easy to find and often they lacked other skills (like an understanding of the importance of deadlines). As time passed, though, and as we were repeatedly disappointed, we became more careful about measuring their requisite skills – assuming that if they were reasonably smart, we could teach them about the topic area involved.

That worked much better – and we’ve seen a trend in the same direction in state and local human resource departments. Increasingly, they seek out people with the appropriate competencies – like analytic skills or the ability to work well in a team – rather than a very specialized body of knowledge.

Here’s one more: When we sign a contract to complete a project, there’s a real temptation to follow that piece of paper to the letter. And typically, the deliverables contained have to do with completing a piece of work in a set period of time. Rarely is there any mention of quality, or even the anticipated outcomes of the work we’re doing.

So, although we still need to pay heed to timing and the clear deliverables, we take one more step and look at the actual goals that will most benefit us over the long term. For example, the contract rarely says anything about actually pleasing a specific editor. But if we don’t do that, we can easily find ourselves in rewrite purgatory, spending far more time on an assignment than the fee warrants. So, why not start out by clarifying exactly what the editor’s expectations are? With that understanding we’re more inclined to meet them.

Viewing the same idea through the state and local perspective, we’re really talking about using outcomes instead of outputs here. It’s not enough to reach out to people experiencing homelessness. And it’s not enough to reach more of them this year than last. What really matters is that these individuals find home and fewer people go to sleep on the streets or in shelters each night.

The upshot here is this: While it can easily seem as though establishing an outcome-based performance management ethos in a city, county, or state is complicated, a great many of the routes toward accomplishing that goal are pretty straightforward, and they can even be found while watching your kids play soccer or getting a computer printer repaired.

Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu