The Thinker

It’s Not the Scorecard, It’s the Mission

I’ve been at my new employer (the U.S. Geological Survey) about a month now. Last week I was surprised to get in the mail a survey from my old federal agency asking for a candid assessment of why I left.

There were a lot of reasons why I left. The primary reason I left remains the same: the new job is 3 miles from my house, old job was 25 miles from my house. But the timesavings weren’t the only reason I left. I also left in part because the guy who sent me the survey really pissed me off. But it wasn’t until I filled out the exit survey and sent it back to him that I was able to fully articulate my feelings.

It was pissed because this “brilliant” guy in the Senior Executive Service had confused a scorecard with actual success.

Does this sound familiar? Maybe you were watching the former White House terrorism czar, Richard Clarke on 60 Minutes Sunday night. He was upset because he tried diligently to get the attention of the latest Bush Administration to the threat of al Qaeda and was largely ignored. There were bigger fish for the Bush Administration to fry in those sweet pre 9/11 days, like missile defense spending for a bogus threat from rogue nations and tax cuts for the rich.

But no matter. Bush must have remembered one lesson at Yale when he was working on that MBA. It must have been the lecture on metrics. Measure progress by keeping metrics. We saw it after we invaded Iraq. Bush has this obsession to get the whole top Iraqi leadership, the “Deck of Cards”. According to Clarke, Bush would check them off one by one. By golly, as soon as he got all of them problem over! Cross Iraq off the list of national security problems! (It was never one to begin with, but that’s another story.)

Events in Iraq proved that this approach was painfully naive. But it’s not surprising, because Bush came into office and put in place the President’s Management Agenda (PMA). In principle the goals seem sound: get results and don’t make empty promises. But the PMA’s modus operandi is interesting. They include such dubious approaches as “competitive sourcing” (i.e. replace federal employees with contractors) and “faith-based and community initiatives”. I guess it does take a lot of faith to buy into both of these dubious notions.

Naturally federal agencies are bending themselves over backwards to show they are becoming leaner, efficient and results oriented. Their scorecard is the PMA. My last agency was no different. Our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Administration was hired because he had a reputation of being a no-nonsense, results oriented guy.

And I have to report our scorecard looked great. Throughout the government agencies are competing hard to show they are making a “clean sweep”, changing old practices and putting in these great new practices (like competitive sourcing) that Republicans believe will make the government more responsive. Outside the wall of his office my SESer had hung a broom spray painted green with the words “Clean Sweep” embossed on the stick in gold letters. Next to it was an enlarged chart showing the key points in the President’s Management Agenda and how ACF was doing. Our metrics were great! We were getting all greens! We were doing so well our SESer was favorably written up in Government Executive magazine.

Yup, I expect he will get an outstanding performance rating this year, and even a bonus.

Too bad it is all spinning wheels.

It’s all bullshit.

He wouldn’t agree of course. The Bush Administration wouldn’t agree either. But it’s bullshit. The reason it’s BS is because it is all window dressing. It hasn’t made my old agency any more effective or efficient. Far from it. The outsourcing, for example, has left the staff shell-shocked and demoralized. Cutting so many managers from the hierarchy may have looked good on paper, but it disconnected employees from their managers. In effect managers didn’t have the time to proactively manage. Instead they were spending their time heeding instructions from those above them and making motions like they were getting things done, but having little idea what their own people were doing. Here’s a clue: it wasn’t always that way. But in buying into this management philosophy no one bothered to figure out if the philosophy could really work in a government culture.

Management today is like sending a novice to a computer certification boot camp. Put someone with half a brain in a room for 12 hours a day, make them cram for a test every night, teach them exactly what they need to know to pass the test and watch them ace it. Then watch them take their certificate to an employer and try to solve a real problem. Then watch them fail. Knowing how to follow the business ideology of the moment doesn’t qualify you to solve real world problems. Intimately understanding the problem domain and effectively working in that domain solves the problems.

As I said in my critique, it’s not how well you score on the President’s Management Agenda that counts, Mr. SES. It’s how effectively you and your staff do the agency’s mission that matters. If you cut expenses by 20% but productivity is down 50% you are not effectively managing. If you take the domain knowledge of a highly talented and dedicated staff of federal employees and give the task to some contractors who are out the door in a year or two, you are not effectively managing. If your agency gives more money to faith based organizations and they cannot show good or better results with the money than a nonsectarian organization, you are not effectively managing.

At USGS we live in a bit of a time warp. Not that we aren’t also subjected to the PMA and similar nonsense. But we are a scientist-heavy organization where federal employees are plentiful and contractors are still largely on the sidelines. With the exception of one person every member of my team is a federal employee.

I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I am with my new team. These people are engaged. They are on the ball. Work is not a chore to them. Work is fun and more importantly work is meaningful. Go look at our NWISWeb system. Get real time information on stream flow, water quality and ground water information for your site, county, state or the whole darn country.

Contractors from SRA with impressive credentials and $200 an hour billing rates didn’t put this together. Ordinary federal scientists and engineers who were trusted and empowered by their managers put this together. These employees had a vision back in 1995: to put the vast National Water Information System data onto the web for the world to see and use. Management said “Go for it. We trust you.” Guess what? They did it. The system was an instant success. Today our hit rates are phenomenal. School districts open or close based on the quality and accuracy of the real time information we provide.

I got an email today from our office in Puerto Rico saying that Caribbean countries depend on the timeliness and accuracy of our data so they can make accurate predictions of their own. Our information not only tells fisherman when might be a good day to catch some trout, but it saves lives.

This administration doesn’t get it but maybe the next one will. But here’s an idea: try truly empowering your federal workforce. Instead of nickel and dime-ing them to death and constantly frightening them with the grim reaper of outsourcing tell them you trust them and have confidence in their ability. You will have in place a workforce that will not only do the people’s business but also do it brilliantly.

Maybe results oriented government isn’t so hard after all.

 

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