What Commerce, HUD and DHS can teach us about improving performance

With the Obama administration nearing its final years, a growing fear has emerged that the progress agencies have made under its watch might be lost in the 2017 transition. Researchers at the Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton say they know how agencies can keep the good things going, even as leaders change. The secret, they say in a new report, is to transform performance improvement  from a check-the-box compliance activity to an embedded part...

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With the Obama administration nearing its final years, a growing fear has emerged that the progress agencies have made under its watch might be lost in the 2017 transition. Researchers at the Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton say they know how agencies can keep the good things going, even as leaders change. The secret, they say in a new report, is to transform performance improvement  from a check-the-box compliance activity to an embedded part of office culture that employees can embrace.

The White House has pushed agencies to measure their programs’ success. Congress has done the same through the GPRA Modernization Act, which requires agencies to set goals and chart their progress toward achieving them.

But agencies merit, on average, “C” grades for their efforts to weave those directives into their workaday culture, according to the performance-improvement staff surveyed for the report. Nearly one in seven said their agencies had failed.  That’s worse than in 2013, when the groups did a similar survey.  At that time, more than half of the respondents gave their agencies a “B.” No one flunked.

But not all is grim. The researchers lauded several agencies, including the departments of Commerce, Homeland Security, and Housing and Urban Development, for figuring out ways to make performance improvement sustainable. Their steps can, and should, be replicated across government, the report concludes.

“As agencies face leadership transitions, they should take the opportunity now to document what is working well and what practices should be abandoned,” the report says.

Commerce Department spells out responsibilities

The sprawling Commerce Department’s individual components, ranging from the Census Bureau to the National Weather Service, used to collaborate only occasionally. Then in March 2014, the department distributed a new strategic plan that directed agencies to work together. The new plan was easier to understand than the department’s prior guide. At 54 pages, it was about a third of the size. Most of the objectives required collaboration between at least three agencies.

“We realize that we can accomplish so much more collectively than we can individually, and the strategic plan and the way it was developed supports that mindset,” a performance staffer told the report’s authors.

The Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has taken the idea a step further. It helps employees understand their own responsibilities through a scorecard that all workers can see.

“The resulting strategic management framework is more effective at aligning employees’ work to the bureau’s goals,” the report says.

EDA emphasizes meet-and-greet

Performance officers at Commerce’s Economic Development Administration said they’ve been able to get “the stories behind the numbers” by meeting with field staff at least four times a year. The performance-improvement staff helps the field offices evaluate their investments in struggling communities.

They’ve found that the face-to-face meetings help headquarters staff understand the issues in a way that they could not do from afar, the report says.  The meetings also foster connections that help the relationships endure when staff returns to Washington.

Customs and Border Protection makes data useful

Lots of agencies have lots of data. But they struggle to turn it into information that they can use to improve programs. Customs and Border Protection field offices collect mountains of data on everything from immigration to trade. The offices lack the capacity to analyze the numbers. Still, they hesitated to send the data to headquarters, for fear that it would be taken out of context.

Performance improvement staff at headquarters asked just some of the field offices to send them the information. They used the data to pinpoint problems in the field offices. They also used it to make comparisons between offices.

“You begin to notice anomalies, like why does it cost more to have a border patrol agent in New Orleans as opposed to El Paso,” one performance staffer told the report’s authors.

The results helped the performance officers build trust with field offices nationwide, the report says.

HUD proves performance improvement saves money

The report credits HUD’s Office of Special Needs and Assistance Programs for succeeding where others have struggled. Performance staff overall have had difficulty proving return on investment, the report says. Under pressure from Congress and the White House, the office tries to track how many of the dollars spent on homelessness services actually get people into permanent homes. They’ve gotten around privacy concerns by using multiple data sets to draw conclusions. The resulting analysis helps them determine the budget they need for the coming year, the report says

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