How to take control of federal performance management

Six steps human capital officers can take to improve performance at agencies.

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Without people, the government can't perform. Bright, motivated and engaged employees are essential as agencies seek to achieve day-to-day goals and advance long-term strategies. But as anyone dealing with federal human capital management knows, developing and maintaining a truly outstanding workforce poses enormous challenges. Especially when you consider the following issues, which should loom large in 2016:

  • The retirement tsunami. An estimated 138,040 federal employees retired in fiscal 2013, up from about 111,640 in 2012 and nearly 82,840 in 2011, according to the most recent figures from the Office of Personnel Management. Clearly, the trend is headed upward.
  • The skills gap. Nearly two in five federal executives say an inadequately skilled workforce presents significant obstacles to mission fulfillment, and 42 percent say they are unable to recruit the best talent, according to a July 2015 study by Vanderbilt University, Princeton University and the Volcker Alliance.
  • Leadership trust and employee engagement. Only one-half of government workers say their senior leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity, down from 55 percent in 2012, according to OPM's 2015 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results. The current federal employee job satisfaction/commitment score now stands at 58.1 out of 100 -- far behind the private-sector score of 76.1, according to data from the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government.

Going into 2016, chief human capital officers (CHCOs) and their teams could effectively address those troubling trends while improving outcomes by committing to the following six steps to take control of performance management:

1. Align goals. In an often-repeated story, President John F. Kennedy was touring the NASA space center in 1962 when he saw a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, "Hi, I'm Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?" The janitor responded, "Mr. President, I'm helping put a man on the moon."

That story underscores the need for all staffers to understand -- and buy into -- the ultimate mission of their agency. Without that alignment, employees won't appreciate how their daily routines fit into the big picture, and managers will struggle to realize critical goals. Therefore, CHCOs must work with senior leaders to clearly communicate mission statements throughout the organization, starting as early as the initial stages of recruitment.

2. Make change inclusive. When leaders force sudden change from above, they frequently lose the employees required to successfully pull off that change. In contrast, when an agency includes all ranks of staffers in change planning, everyone will believe they have a big stake in the improvements. They will feel empowered and motivated and will serve as top contributors to the transition. That's why CHCOs and their teams should cultivate a "listening" culture, one in which everyone knows they're being heard and that any shifts in practices and policies are intended to resolve their pain points.

3. Automate manual tasks for short-term wins. Yes, we're constantly focused on the long-term view. But the troops will rally around short-term victories. Toward that end, agencies should implement automated processes to replace manual ones. They can start with their human resources departments, which are probably still too paperwork-dependent when tracking employee performance. When that and other efforts are automated and/or migrated to the cloud, agencies will save time and reduce expenses while making teams more productive and happy (i.e., engaged).

4. Develop a workforce of leaders. The old federal way was to move people up the ladder to management roles, regardless of whether they were suited to be managers. Through professional development, a new way is taking hold, one in which doers are transformed into leaders through the augmentation of their communications and collaboration capabilities, as well as additional "soft skills" that are in rare supply: The lack of interpersonal skills is the No. 1 reason why executives in new positions fail to meet expectations, according to the Institute for Executive Development. When agencies advocate for training that helps employees tackle those shortcomings, they further enhance engagement levels.

5. Drive a modern, agile technology transformation. The lingering presence of antiquated tech systems has created a costly problem for agencies. Nearly three-quarters of the $80 billion federal IT budget is spent on keeping legacy systems running, according to results of a congressional investigation reported in November. More than nine in 10 federal IT managers say it is urgent for their agencies to modernize legacy applications. They cite security issues (42 percent), the time required to oversee the systems (36 percent), inflexibility (31 percent) and integration concerns (31 percent), according to a November report from MeriTalk.

Rather than sticking with systems that are past their expiration date, CHCOs should invest in highly configurable, modern technology that accommodates the processes of each individual agency, not the other way around. Even more important, as processes evolve, modern systems will adapt with minimal time and effort. They will accelerate automation while eliminating the numerous steps currently taken to get from Point A to Point B in recruiting, onboarding, training and more.

6. Unleash the power of analytics. Legacy systems can't help you keep up with the big-data explosion. To maximize the value of the data they collect, agencies must acquire and deploy analytics tools that provide immediate, return-on-investment benefits. In fact, organizations that are considered mature in analytics deployment are twice as likely to improve their recruitment efforts and 2.5 times more likely to place the right people in the right jobs, according to research from Bersin by Deloitte. They're also twice as likely to improve their leadership pipelines.

That's because such tools establish total visibility into all talent management functions. Through active alerts, for instance, managers identify job candidates who have been stuck in recruitment limbo for far too long and immediately contact those candidates with updates while pushing them forward to the next stage of the hiring cycle. They dig deep into employee surveys to pinpoint areas where satisfaction levels are extremely high to get a sense of what's working well there and how other areas might adopt those practices. With analytics, they forecast future staffing vacancies well in advance, and adjust their training and recruiting plans accordingly.

Launching all six of these steps at once would amount to a tall order indeed. That's why we recommend that agencies proceed with them one at a time -- through baby steps that lead to bigger ones.

Officials could introduce a mission-alignment plan, for example, in a small part of an agency to assess the impact before undertaking a broader implementation. Or they could replace a single legacy system with an automated, analytics-enabling one while taking note of successes and pain points encountered along the way. That approach enables them to develop best practices as they move forward with a fully modernized, departmentwide consolidation/integration. In doing so, they'll take command of performance management in a proactive, strategic manner -- one that can stand up to anything that 2016 might bring.

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