COMMENTARY

Use goals to motivate employees

Steve Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

One of the themes I emphasize when I teach performance measurement to senior career managers in executive education classes at the Kennedy School of Government is the difference between thinking about performance measurement as an external accountability tool for outside actors — for example, the Office of Management and Budget, the Government Accountability Office or Capitol Hill — to make a judgment on an agency’s performance and thinking about it as a tool managers can use to improve their organizations' performance. The former activity is for those organizations; the latter is for us.

Accountability rhetoric tends to dominate discussions of the use of performance measurement in government. For example, school testing is routinely referred to as a school accountability system. And, of course, we live in a democratic society, so government organizations inevitably will and should be accountable to taxpayers and their representatives.

Nonetheless, there are unfortunate consequences to having federal managers equate “performance measurement” with “accountability.” Accountability, however necessary, is by its nature punitive. When was the last time somebody said, “You did a great job on this project, so we’re going to hold you accountable by giving you a promotion”? Federal managers might accept the necessity of accountability, but they are unlikely to jump for joy at the prospect.

In an executive education class I have been teaching for GS-15s and colonels, the participants seemed to embrace that distinction. One result of viewing performance measurement as an accountability exercise is that agencies try to isolate it from line activities, instead making it a function of the chief financial officer's office in preparing reports for outside overseers.

Students noted other dysfunctional results. For instance, if managers believe measures are just for accountability, they will not hesitate to game them. They will feel no ownership of them, and it won’t occur to them to use the measures as a performance improvement tool.

Although members of the class cited a number of examples of how they are using such measures to improve their organizations from the inside, they also noted a widespread view that the governmentwide performance measurement effort was, to a significant extent, a data call and a drill — two staples of government life that make career managers cynical.

The Obama administration has tried to embed performance measurement in agency programs in a way not done previously. (Full disclosure: My wife, Shelley Metzenbaum, leads this effort.) For high-priority goals, agencies have chosen goal leaders — actual program people who are responsible for a goal. And the proposed Government Performance and Results Modernization Act calls for agencies to conduct regular meetings with program people and senior executives to assess progress, such as the famed New York City Police Department's CompStat meetings, which helped drive down crime in that city.

One of the ways measures can improve performance is as a tool to motivate employees to try harder. The finding that giving people challenging, concrete goals motivates more effort than simply telling them to do their best is one of the best-established results coming out of research on human motivation.

When I mentioned that in class, one of the participants said, “We never do this in government.” I noted President John F. Kennedy’s goal to send a person to the moon and back within 10 years as an example of using a goal to motivate more effort. Playfully, the participant responded, “Yeah, you had to go back 50 years to find an example.” My response to that is: “Shame on us!”

Federal managers frequently complain about their relative lack of management tools to influence employee behavior. Let’s not leave the important tools we do have just lying on the floor.

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