Federal agency performance depends on individual accountability

Accountability, performance measurement, and the interplay between political appointees can get complicated.

Accountability, performance measurement, and the interplay between political appointees can get complicated. One way to improve agency performance, is to make sure people each have specific goals they are expected to meet. to go a little deeper, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with long-time federal management professor Bob Tobias.

Interview Transcript: 

And Bob, you’re kind of upset with people that don’t really understand that firing large numbers of so-called, quote, unelected bureaucrats is the way to help performance in the government and help deliver services better.

Bob Tobias Yes, Tom, I think that’s it. You know. We often hear that it’s necessary to hold federal employees accountable. When we hear that the focus is more often than not on non-manager civil service employees. And what we hear is get those poor performers out of here. What’s taking so much time. They’re hanging around. Why don’t they make it happen. We have to make discharging those folks easier. But I suggest that firing non manager federal employees will not stimulate more individual performance. And it will not result in more overall better performance in the federal government. What’s necessary is holding every level of management in the federal government responsible, holding every level of federal government accountable for creating performance goals and creating performance standards. The recent National Academy of Public Administration paper, written by Jeffrey Neal, defined accountability as managers at each government level, being responsible for defining specific tasks to be performed. They are answerable to someone for accomplishing those tasks, experience consequences for failure to perform the tasks and receive rewards for exceptional work. Pretty clear. Pretty simple. Pretty understandable. But the problem is who at each level is responsible? And if we follow those who say we ought to run the government like a business, every single creative, profitable private sector business has top to bottom alignment of performance, goals and objectives and holds each level responsible for successfully dealing with poor performers. So interesting, I think, is that the top in the federal sector is the US Congress. They’re at the top of the food chain. They’re analogous to private sector board of directors. But I suggest, Tom, that rather than being a model of holding itself accountable for government performance, it does so much to inhibit effective government performance. They don’t enact timely budgets. So, if an agency leader creates a strategic plan, creates a budget, we’re now four months into the fiscal year, and these leaders have no idea whether they’re going to get more money, same money or less money.

Tom Temin There’s no budget in sight, really.

Bob Tobias So how do I, as a leader, plan expenditures? The answer is I can’t. Congress doesn’t hold serious oversight hearings about what are agency goals and objectives. They don’t do that and haven’t done it for many, many, many years. And they don’t point out agency leaders who are really successful in achieving goals and objectives and giving them more money to spend because they’re efficient and effective. And of course, they fail to timely fill political appointee vacancies and then say agencies are directionless.

Tom Temin We are speaking with Bob Tobias. He’s former NTEU president and professor in the Key Executive Leadership program at American University. It’s really incumbent on the administration to set goals and push those down through its political appointees, who then should be trained or educated if they’re new to this, how to inculcate that through the bureaucracy that they oversee. And then the standing career federal senior leaders should know how to do that translation and turn that into some sort of a cogent way for people to have understanding what they’re expected to do. Is that the better model here?

Bob Tobias Well, it is a better model, but I think, Tom, each of those levels is failing to do what it is you suggest ought to be done. So, the next level below the Congress is the chief executive officer of the executive branch, the President of the United States.

Tom Temin But that’s where the corporate argument doesn’t quite hold up, because the president is not strictly accountable to Congress because. We have separation of powers.

Bob Tobias Well, the president is not directly responsible, but the president selects political appointees who are responsible to Congress. And I suggest that no political appointee certainly in my many years, has ever been asked to resign for failing to achieve performance, goals, and objectives. Ever. And a president who is really serious about accountability and performance goals at the beginning of an administration would say, I’m going to nominate you for a political appointee position, but be advised that on an annual basis, I’m going to evaluate whether you achieve agency goals and objectives. And if you don’t I’m going to ask you to resign. So yes the president is not directly responsible. But he or she is responsible for implementing legislative goals and implementing the policy goals of an administration. And then you get to the next level political appointees. They’re responsible for setting performance goals and yet the 2023 Federal Employee Viewpoint survey tells us that only 66% of federal employees agree that managers communicate the goals of the organization. 66% and only 45% of federal workers agree with the statement, in my work unit differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way. So, if I don’t know what the standard is and I can’t differentiate my performance from another, how can I hold anyone accountable for failing to achieve an undefined task?

Tom Temin Well, that takes us back to your original thesis here is that, you know, just simply firing people arbitrarily is not going to get your performance goals. So, it sounds like people have three elements of whether there is meaningful connection between how they perform and whether they have their job. One is raises and promotions. And so, people that do perform well should get more money and more responsibility. Those that aren’t horrible or damaging maybe, but are useful to the organization, well, they don’t get a promotion. They get the standard raise every year. And if people are not meeting the basic goals, then you have to let them go. And it’s actually not as difficult as people often make it out to be in the federal government. And we know that there’s I think it’s 15,000 or so people are fired every year from the federal government. But when there is no discretion in how much of a compensation change someone can get, it’s kind of hard to tie performance to compensation. Everybody gets the same 4.2% or whatever it was this year, as opposed to I’ve got a pool of 4%. I’m going to give these people. I mean, this lady was fantastic. She’s going to get 8%. This guy was marginal. He’s going to get 0.5%.

Bob Tobias Well, the fact is time that agencies do have discretion to provide annual awards for people who perform exceptionally. And how those awards are made is really part of this issue. Because if the goal is not clear, and you get an award, and I don’t. I’m saying. How come old Tom got that award? I did more than he did. And yet neither one of us have measurable goals. So, I conclude that you must, Tom. You must be liked by your supervisor. And I’m hated.

Tom Temin Yeah. Arbitrary and capricious. That’s the worst thing to feel about an organization. So, your bottom-line advice for the politicos and the senior executive service?

Bob Tobias Well, the senior executive service, you know, I wish they would take more responsibility. But only half of federal employees believe their senior leaders generate high levels of motivation, and only 62% believe their senior leaders maintain high levels of honesty and integrity. So those folks aren’t doing their job. So, this idea of creating performance goals, performance standards, measuring work is not an easy task. And it’s not well done in the private sector either. 95% of private sector managers in a recent Gallup poll said they’re unsatisfied with their organization’s performance review systems. But what’s clear is creating an accountable performance management system cannot be solved by scapegoating non manager federal employees by making it easier to fire them. They live in an unaccountable system Tom.

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