OMB’s Metzenbaum leaves behind an invigorated performance culture

Shelley Metzenbaum's last day was Friday after four years at OMB as the associate director for personnel and performance. She said agencies understand now, more...

For more than a decade, agencies have been setting goals and measuring performance. But over the last four years, the government has moved closer toward a culture of performance than ever before.

Shelley Metzenbaum, whose last day was Friday as the associate director for personnel and performance at the Office of Management and Budget, said in an exit interview one of the major differences is how agencies are using data to improve outcomes.

Shelley Metzenbaum, former associate director for personnel and performance, OMB
“We focused a lot, initially, on the use proposition. How do you get agencies to actually set goals and realize they are power tools? A goal is a clear, concise statement,” Metzenbaum said in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio before she left OMB. “If you set a stretch goal, it encourages innovation, it energizes people, and how do you get the leadership to actually engage on that, so we used the priority goals. But then, we knew that more frequent measurement makes a huge difference because it gives you fast feedback, it lets you know whether you are making a difference or not, and adjust mid-course, not having to wait a whole year to make that adjustment. That was part of our initial emphasis and we’ve seen huge change in that area.”

It has been Metzenbaum’s job to be the Obama administration’s activist for performance management over the last four years. She worked closely with Jeff Zients, the deputy director for management and chief performance officer, on the broad performance management strategy. Zients left OMB on May 1, leaving the government without its the two top performance management officials.

Dashboards and stat sessions

Metzenbaum was responsible for the day-to-day performance initiatives, including helping to usher in a new approach that focused on dashboards and “stat” sessions. The stat sessions started small. For instance, TechStat, initially focused on one troubled IT project. The sessions have morphed over time into initiatives such as PortfolioStat, which looks across an agency to find redundant spending. The administration also developed CyberStat, HRStat and AcqStat to analyze agency efforts in each of these areas.

Finally, Metzenbaum helped agencies and bureaus set three-to-eight high priority goals. She also oversaw how they were implemented through data-driven reviews, such as HUDStat, FDATrack and FEMAStat sessions.

“We are seeing some real promising signs,” she said. “The use of goals, the use of data, the analysis, the drill downs, we are seeing real promising work going on. We think the Government Accountability Office studies are picking changes in culture. Is it wholesale? No, it takes time.”

Combination of past approaches

When the Obama administration came into office in 2009, it created a performance management agenda that combined some ideas from the methods used in both the Clinton and Bush administrations — the 1,000 flowers bloom and top-down approaches — to engage deputy secretaries, but also employees at the program level.

Metzenbaum said getting deputy secretaries to pay close attention to the performance goals started by requiring them to set the high-priority goals and participate in the “stat” sessions. The bottom-up approach included everything from the SAVE Awards, which asked frontline employees for money saving ideas, to participation in how data is analyzed and goals are set.

“I think we’ve got a phenomenally strong foundation. We are seeing huge attitude changes and huge excitement from people in the agencies starting at the top from deputy secretaries, who can talk about these goals,” she said. “We also are seeing it start to happen across the board. We are not seeing everywhere, all the time. What we are trying to do is get the top down, bottoms up and keep learning. We also are seeing agencies use the Employee Viewpoint Survey to really figure where there are strengths, and where there are weaknesses, and learn from each other. They also are learning how to analyze the data.”

Metzenbaum said the biggest difference is agency managers are not resisting the need to set and measure goals, but are seeing value in what the approach does for the agency.

“I think we’ve really changed the mindset. Sometimes, I like to say we reset the mindset where people treated goals and measurements as something they needed to do because it was a requirement, and it went into plans and reports that nobody read, to now really using the data and realizing a goal is really a very powerful, simple and effective shorthand to communicating priorities,” she said. “Measurement that is frequent, that is fresh, gives you data and it is not about punishment, but about improvement. We are seeing excitement. We are seeing agencies come together with huge excitement to learn from each other about how to do risk management, how do they analyze data and look for positive outliers.”

Expanding the performance conversation

The next step for agencies, Metzenbaum said, is for agencies to use the goals and measurements to engage vendors and the public more broadly.

“I think it’s trying to get the incentives structure right when we are working with those delivery partners, whether it’s contractors or grantees,” she said. “I think it’s just a learning curve that we need to move along. We need to learn how to use measurement to learn across delivery partners. There are some areas where we’ve had terrific progress, but there are a lot of areas where we need to go further.”

Metzenbaum wouldn’t say what’s next for her. She wants to continue working with governments to improve their performance.

“I’m leaving with very mixed emotions. I’ve loved working at OMB. I’ve loved working with performance improvement officers, and also the goal leaders across the government and the federal employees who are just phenomenal, and phenomenally committed,” she said. “It’s time for us to let this foundation we built to take root, and the agencies, OMB and the PIOs are huge leaders in this way and I think I can be very helpful from the outside now.”


IT projects pulled from brink of failure

HUD finds program success in review sessions

Performance guru Metzenbaum leaving OMB

Zients out as OMB deputy director for management

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