Kelman: 3 secrets to productivity

What federal agencies can do to create workplaces in which employees are motivated and effective.

One benefit of my position as editor of the International Public Management Journal is that I get to see interesting new scholarly work in its early phase.

I just had the pleasure of reading a fascinating paper submitted to the journal by Laura Langbein, a professor at American University.

It has an academic-sounding title: “Controlling Federal Agencies: The Contingent Impact of External Controls on Worker Discretion and Productivity.”

The findings are relevant to an important practical question: How do we create federal workplaces that do a better job of serving people? Langbein’s primary data source is a 2000 Merit Systems Protection Board survey of more than 7,000 feds. In the paper, she examines the features of an agency’s internal and external environments that are associated with greater individual employee discretion on the job, and then assesses the relationship between such factors and individual productivity.

She measures discretion and workplace participation using responses to three statements, including “At the place where I work, my opinions seem to count.” She measures productivity based on respondents’ self-reports, a gauge that is likely to produce exaggerated performance reports but not to bias associations between productivity and the background factors she is examining.

The paper has many findings, but three are noteworthy for good-government advocates.

The first finding is that having a high ratio of political appointees to career employees is associated with lower productivity.

That finding echoes the conclusion of a paper David Lewis of Princeton University and John Gilmour of the College of William and Mary published a few years ago based on Office of Management and Budget Performance Assessment Rating Tool scores.

The second finding is that the more management layers an agency has between top executives and frontline employees, the lower the productivity. That finding provides some meat to a concern Paul Light of New York University has been expressing for a number of years.

The third finding is more complex.

When employees have more discretion — or participation — on the job, the ones who are motivated by their jobs’ mission and values have higher productivity, but those motivated mostly by money have lower productivity rates. That finding supports the reinvention movement of the 1990s, which was based on employee empowerment and mission orientation.

Unfortunately, the qualities that Langbein suggests increase federal employee productivity — fewer political appointees, flatter management structures and empowered, enthusiastic employees — run counter to recent government management trends.

My wish is that the next president will reverse some of the long-standing practices that inhibit our ability to have more effective federal workplaces.

Kelman (steve_kelman@harvard.edu) is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.   

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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