Is performance measurement a fad that has now come and gone?

Getty Images - Sean Gladwell

Steve Kelman warns that a constant priority under the previous four presidents is getting far less attention from the Biden administration.

Many blog readers probably know that my teaching at the Harvard Kennedy School at this point is limited to a one-month executive education program (mostly) for federal GS-15s that takes place four times a year called Senior Executive Fellows.  A new session of the program spun up in late January – remotely, as has been the case since the beginning of the pandemic.

I always look forward with enthusiasm to seeing the “photo roster” of participants with pictures, agencies, and bios. I review this information carefully -- both to learn more about who is in class and to see with which participants I share interests, such as contracting and IT, so I can invite them to (in the past in person but now remote) lunches.

In this  new cohort, there was not a single participant whose job description involved performance measurement at their agency. In the past, there have typically been two or three out of a class of 60-70 who had a “chief performance officer” title or whose bio mentioned performance measurement. This time? Zero. (I don’t remember for sure, because for whatever reason it didn’t hit me in the same way, but I believe neither of the previous two cohorts had a person with these responsibilities either.)

I have been interested in the use of performance measurement as a tool to improve government for literally five decades. When I was a grad student in political science at Harvard way back in the 1970s I took a course on government bureaucracy with the legendary social scientist James Q. Wilson, who later became my thesis advisor. One of the main lessons he taught was that a key factor inhibiting good government performance was the difficulty of developing good performance metrics for government activities.

That lesson has stuck with me since, and I wrote about the importance of performance measurement in government from early in my academic career. When I was in government in the 1990s, working in President Bill Clinton’s administration on improving the procurement system, one theme I emphasized was developing procurement performance measures. With the passage of the Government Performance and Results Act at the beginning of the Clinton administration, performance measurement was put front and center. I have repeatedly made the argument that performance metrics are a powerful management tool – the government’s counterpart to the profit metric in companies – for employees and executives alike.

Performance measurement was very much in the spirit of Clinton’s Democrats, who believed (unlike some Republicans) in the importance of government, but were not apologists for a governmental status quo.  Those officials instead asked (to borrow a phrase Republicans under President George W. Bush embraced) that we expect more from how well government did.

One of the developments I noted with satisfaction with each new presidential transition since Clinton was that, in contrast to flavor-of-the-month management initiatives that sadly have traditionally characterized government, performance measurement survived new administrations, stronger and with more emphasis with each new one.  (President Donald Trump was an exception, but even the Trump administration, through Matt Lira’s Office of American Innovation, championed performance measurement to some degree.)

A major step forward was the practice begun in earnest in President Barack Obama’s administration, with passage of the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act in 2010, for deputy secretaries to organize regular meetings involving senior program management to discuss progress on reaching an agency’s performance goals.

Performance measurement does not seem to have the same priority in President Joe Biden’s administration, however. Past iterations of the President’s Management Agenda have often centered on performance measurement and used the document to announce priority performance goals. Biden’s management agenda devotes only one paragraph to performance measurement at the very end of the document.

To be fair, the Biden management agenda promises that priority goals will be announced with the president’s budget in February. Also, the White House has announced a number of “priorities,” ranging from Covid to fighting climate change, though these are pretty general and don’t include specific goals or targets. It remains to be seen whether the administration will promote the kind of regular performance meetings run by senior officials that spread during Obama.

The Biden administration is still young, and there is definitely time to recover. But recovery is necessary. It would be very sad if an effort begun under one Democratic administration died under another.