Measuring for management

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Steve Kelman is impressed with how today's senior federal civilian and military managers approach performance data.

I have written frequently in The Lectern over the years about performance measurement in government – a word search on my name and the terms on the FCW site shows 159 references over the years. Ever since a professor of mine in grad school 50 years ago argued that government agencies could perform well if they had performance measures they could use, I have believed that performance measures can constitute perhaps the single most-important tool available to government managers. They can, I have argued repeatedly, motivate employees to work harder, focus employees on a few important things, and help employees learn which techniques aid them to do a better job.

I did a class on performance measurement in the current Senior Executive Fellows executive education program we run at the Kennedy School for federal GS-15's and colonels. At the beginning of the class, I did a quick poll where I asked them whether performance measurement in their organization was used more as a drill or a compliance exercise, or more as a tool for improving performance. Quite to my surprise, 70% of the class voted that it was used more as a tool for improving performance. A good sign – I am guessing the numbers would have been quite different a decade ago.

We spent the rest of the class talking about examples from their own organizations of performance measures that worked well and of ones that were ineffective or counterproductive. One student-presented example of the former was at the National Park Service.  Around 2007 the agency introduced incident reporting on workplace accidents,  including near miss reporting), discussion of accident numbers at senior staff meetings, sharing lessons learned from accidents, and inclusion of a safety criterion on employee annual performance plans. In the following years, accidents declined dramatically. Another was a metric to reduce the use of paper checks rather than electronic funds transfers. The organization then tracked EFT use each week; numbers went to top management, and subunits got data on how their use of EFT compared with other units. Use of paper checks declined from 12% to 8%. A third organization developed a list of most-important objectives and assigned four or five followup tasks for each objective.

At the end of the class, I asked the students what advice they would give to an organization beginning to use performance measures for the first time. I got three answers: set your metrics when the process is beginning, pay attention to choosing the right metrics, and tie the metrics to the organization's core values.

As befits a group of practical managers working on practical government programs, their responses were straightforward and actionable. I like what they had to say.

A blogger rebrands

My blog is now a column.

I have now been writing The Lectern for for 25 years. I am so grateful to the opportunity FCW has provided and to all who read my thoughts.

Since it started, I have referred to these commentaries as a "blog." Recently, a young relative of mine told me how much he enjoyed reading my "newsletter," and I noted in response that I called it a blog. "That's so 2003, Uncle Steve," he replied. 

I guess it is – that's about the last time I thought about what to call The Lectern. Inspired by his comment, I will henceforth be calling The Lectern a column. It is not a newsletter, both because it rarely presents breaking news and also because most newsletters are circulated via subscription and go out automatically to those who have signed up.