Comptroller general wrong about fed managers

According to David Walker, comptroller general of the United States, the cornerstone of efforts to implement performance-based management systems within the federal government is the adoption of a results orientation. I could not agree more. If an employee comes in to work simply to put in his hours and draw his pay, the organization isn't going to perform as well as it could, and the employee will not get much satisfaction from his job.

However, additional comments made by Walker before a congressional committee (see GAO/T-OCG-99-23, Feb. 10, 1999) trouble me. "Many agencies continue to struggle to implement basic tenets of...management called for by the Government Performance and Results Act [GPRA]," he said. "The uneven pace of progress across government is not surprising; agencies are in the early years of undertaking the changes that Government Performance and Results Act management entails."

Walker seems to be saying that federal managers and employees did not know how to perform until the passage of GPRA (legislation championed by the General Accounting Office). That is absurd. What type of management does Walker believe prevailed within the federal government before the passage of GPRA? Were employees being rewarded for not doing their jobs well?

Let's get one thing straight: Federal managers should not—and do not—require legislation to know how to manage. If they do, they should not be in management jobs in the first place. You cannot legislate good performance, Mr. Walker. Get real.

People—managers and workers alike—must be motivated to do a good job. Some of that motivation is internal. Most people take pride in their work and doing a job well. Those who do not often have difficulties wherever they work.

In addition to the internal motivation that resides in many individuals, there are many external motivators. Money is certainly one of them, and recognition is another. If federal workers are not paid adequately, an essential motivator is missing. And because it's been consistently established that federal employees are not paid as much as their private-sector counterparts, obtaining optimal performance within the federal workplace is not an easy task.

Despite that problem, a manager who knows how to employ the motivating elements that are at his disposal can work wonders with a capable staff. In any event, it's distressing to hear a senior government official like Walker imply that government performance can or should be legislated.

And he didn't stop there. Walker continued by saying the "government has failed to manage on the basis of a clear understanding of the results expected to be achieved and how performance will be gauged. These understandings are vital, because programs are designed and implemented in dynamic environments; competing program priorities and stakeholders' needs must continuously be balanced and new needs addressed."

What evidence is there to support such a damning statement? What would prevent managers from having a clear understanding of the results expected of them? So what if programs are designed and implemented in dynamic environments? Is he saying feds are dumb and need to have everything spelled out for them in idiot-proof instructions? It sure sounds that way to me, and I do not appreciate it.

Federal employees got us to the moon. And you may have noticed that the Postal Service is currently giving Federal Express and UPS stiff competition with its Priority Mail program. The federal government approves the marketing of new drugs and decides when drugs aren't safe. It responds when there is a national disease control problem. Based on these achievements and others, it would appear that federal managers have been extremely capable, even before GPRA ever reared its head.

Mr. Walker, you are all wet. If GPRA is not working out, it is because the people who developed and supported the legislation screwed up. With friends like you, feds do not need any enemies.

--Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who contributes regularly to Federal Computer Week.

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