Being a performance manager

Recently I taught in an executive education program that the Kennedy School

conducted for senior General Accounting Office managers. My topic was performance

measurement, especially the kind envisioned by the Government Performance

and Results Act (GPRA), the 1993 legislation designed to move agencies to

use performance measurement to improve overall government performance.

We started with a private-sector case, namely the credit card division

that AT&T launched in the early 1990s. The organization took seriously

performance measures relating to customer satisfaction and even internal

activities that they believed related to profits the division would ma


looked at the aggressive crime performance measures — by geography, time

of day and type of crime — the New York Police Department introduced during

the 1990s, which have been associated with a larger-than-elsewhere decline

in crime.

Managers at each organization received measurements daily and used them

in interacting with their people.

Many in the class believed that was overkill. So I asked them: In federal

agencies for which the GAO managers had oversight responsibility, did they

believe agency managers looked at performance measures collected for GPRA

performance plans too often, about the right frequency or not often enough?

Or did they know the answer to the question? Most responded, "don't know

the answer to the question."

GAO is proud of its role in GPRA implementation, as it should be. Knowledge

about GPRA among senior GAO managers in this session was high. But because

of GPRA's focus on developing agency strategic and performance plans, GAO's

role has been limited mostly to reacting to paper documents rather than

working to convince agencies to use performance measures.

It is an open question whether GPRA will improve agency performance.

Anybody who knows Washington, D.C., knows what the failure path looks like:

GPRA becomes a "drill," assigned to low-level staff who communicate with

counterparts in GAO and the Office of Management and Budget, pass around

stacks of paper and keep performance measurement insulated from the everyday

activities of the organization.

For GPRA to work, we need to move from performance measurement to

performance management. Managing the use of performance measures provides

a tool to improve agency results. For individual employees, working to achieve

goals motivates better performance. For managers, performance measures help

them know what to nag employees about.

The good news from the executive education sessions was that there is

almost unanimity at GAO that it needs to focus on pushing agencies to use

performance information to manage — as well as to examine — trends in agency

performance measures. That's heartening for anybody who hopes for high-performance


— Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy

form 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management

at Harvard University's School of Government.


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