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By Steve Kelman

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How agency heads are measuring to manage

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In my last blog post, I reported on some results of research that I and Ron Sanders, the former long-time senior civil servant now at Booz Allen Hamilton, have been conducting. Booz Allen is sponsoring our work.

We have interviewed 20 Obama-era agency heads, 10 chosen by good-government experts as examples of outstanding leaders, and 10 more picked at random. In my last post I discussed what we discovered about how these executives approach decision-making.

We also asked them about their personal involvement in efforts to improve performance using performance measures, and in efforts to find efficiency savings in tight budget times. As with the decision-making questions, we didn't want to ask vague questions that would elicit predictable, socially-acceptable responses. We wanted to get to the details. So we asked them, for example, to name specific performance measures they personally followed, or to describe what happened at their most recent meeting to follow up on performance measures in their organizations (if they have such meetings at all).

The answers of both groups – which we also presented recently at Brookings -- showed many similarities, though with some differences. All 10 of the outstanding executives, and nine of the randomly selected ones, could name at least one specific performance measure they followed – though the outstanding ones were able to name a good deal more (an average of more than six for the outstanding executives, compared to only three for the controls). It may be noted, though, that for both groups, most of the measures they named were input or output measures; few were true outcome measures.

All of the outstanding executives and six of the randomly selected ones held meetings at least quarterly to go over the status and discuss ways to move forward on agency performance measures. Four of them held such meetings monthly. Everybody who held such meetings was able to describe in some detail what went on at the most recent such meeting.

Similarly, all 20 of our subjects were able to mention at least one specific example of something they had done to achieve efficiency savings – but again, the average total number of actions cited was greater for outstanding executives than for their randomly chosen colleagues (4.4 vs. 2.6). Most of the areas where these executives sought efficiency savings came out of OMB's standard playbook – such as travel and strategic sourcing – but the outstanding executives were noticeably more likely to choose efficiency savings tailored to the specifics of their agency's mission.

What conclusions do we draw from this? One is that, after surviving as an initiative through three administrations, the use of performance measurement to improve agency performance seems finally to be becoming institutionalized as part of the way senior agency executives do business. The second is that despite the common belief that agency heads are too involved with politics, policymaking, and media to actively manage their agencies, these executives seem, as a group, very much involved in management. Given how depressing politics is these days, that is probably a good way for them to use their time.

Posted on Oct 09, 2013 at 6:48 AM


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