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The two reasons most public performance programs fail

Updated: Jun 19

....and what you can do instead to drive transformative change.

Today's blog post is drawn from PPI Co-founder Ryan Hunter's presentation to California agency leaders at 2023's GovOps Leadership Forum.

I can’t keep up with fashion trends. Just when you’ve figured out the cut of jeans you’re supposed to wear, it’s no longer cool.

Government performance goes through these fads too. I do this work all day long, and I can barely keep up with all the innovation teams, hack-a-thons, design labs, Agile project managers, smart cities, data scientists, and digital transformations, each pushing their own approach to strategic planning, KPI development, business process improvement, total quality management, lean, Six Sigma, balanced scorecard, Hoshin Kanri, Baldridge, objectives and key results, and seven more that have been developed since I published this post. Most of these approaches were developed in some particular corporate environment, optimized for that environment, and championed by a few visionary leaders.

The truth is, any of these approaches can be implemented to great effect… but they usually aren’t.

Measurement or Innovation?

Most performance work is characterized by a focus on either measurement or innovation. 

Let’s define terms: Measurement efforts aim to create accountability and transparency by defining goals, measuring progress, and requiring leaders to be responsive to real data. Innovation work aims to support folks to do better by designing and implementing new process or technology.

Measurement / accountability

Innovation / support

  • Key Performance Indicators

  • Objectives and Key Results

  • CompStat / CityStat

  • Dashboards

  • Scorecards

  • Strategic plans / strategic goals

  • Metrics review with elected officials

  • Transparent public reporting

  • Design labs

  • Hack-a-thons

  • Civic innovation

  • Public-private partnerships

  • Staff idea generation, sharing in savings

  • Digital services

  • IT “modernization”

  • Project Management Offices

  • Change management

Most performance programs emphasize one of these categories or the other. But in order to get real, lasting results, you need to do both.

Let’s think about each of the quadrants of this matrix. Where would your agency fall?

Stagnant: Low accountability / Low support

The public sector lacks the private sector’s “advantage” of competition: If a private company fails to improve, eventually a competitor will crop up, offering a better service at a lower price, and the first company goes out of business (in theory, anyway). You have to improve or die.

Not so in government: Your city / county / state has a monopoly on being your city / county / state. Without an intentional and concerted effort to improve, public sector agencies become increasingly bogged down in bureaucracy and unresponsive to citizens. We have to be motivated to improve by our mission and civic duty, not by the cold, hard calculus of profit.

But I’m guessing that if you’re reading this, you’re already motivated to improve. You’re more likely to fall into one of the next two categories:

Punitive: High accountability / Low support

I spoke with a government recently that implemented an organization-wide program to require every department head to work with a consultant to develop detailed, measurable goals and develop a structure to regularly report those goals to the chief executive’s office. I asked what the plan was, once they’d done the hard work of being honest about what they needed to achieve, to help them accomplish those goals. The response was basically, “They’ll figure it out.”

Maybe you’ve experienced an environment like this, where you’ve been scrutinized for deficiencies and not provided any help to do anything about it – in a performance program, or even just with a supervisor. How does it feel? Is it motivating? I’m guessing not.

When we shine a spotlight on performance – creating very high pressure to perform – but we don’t provide a similar amount of resources for support to do better, we risk becoming punitive. Such an environment can make agencies less concerned with getting results than with avoiding looking bad.

When agencies are scrutinized without support:

  • People learn to hide problems. Why should I be honest about the biggest struggles, if my reward is just more scrutiny and no help?

  • People set modest goals that they know they can meet. No one wants to show up to the meeting with a bunch of red lights on their dashboard.

  • In the worst case, you incentivize data distortion. One hospital was under pressure to reduce the time patients spent in the ER before being admitted. They responded by leaving patients in ambulances, so they wouldn’t count as being in the ER.

Directionless: Low accountability / High support

If being punitive is bad, then let’s just help everyone! Give them resources to fix computer systems, do process improvement, and redesign services. Indeed, efforts like this can yield results.

The question though is, to what end? How do we know what areas need improvement, and whether those improvements have worked? Without an idea of what’s most important to your customers and knowing how you’re doing at your key mission, your innovation efforts will be scattershot.

When innovation teams (or design teams or digital service teams or…) aren’t focusing their efforts on measurable goals, they tend to be hijacked: Their project portfolio becomes dominated by leaders’ pet projects, the most recent political football, or the fire that needs to be put out this week. You also risk chasing fads: We need a sleeker website! We need an app! We need a beautiful slide deck!

Having teams like these without long-term measurable goals is like having a turbo jet without any navigation: You can burn a lot of fuel without really getting anywhere.


Results-oriented: High accountability / High support

To get real results, you have to do both: You must have goals that are key to your organization’s mission and know how you’re currently performing at those goals and you must provide your key leaders the support they need to address those specific problems and achieve the things that matter most.

When we built the San Francisco Lean Program, we quickly learned to stop accepting process improvement projects that lacked a metric for success: “My process is a mess” is not in and of itself a problem. The problem is something else: Delayed enrollment in benefits, non-compliance with state law, errors in collected revenue. Only with a laser-focus on that true problem could we do effective improvement work.


Tips for managing to results

  • Don’t boil the ocean: Keep a laser focus on a small number of KPIs that really matter. These should be issues that are fundamental to your reason for existing. Think, “If we did this well, we’d be accomplishing our mission.”

  • Make sure you know your current performance. Whatever those goals are, you should know exactly how you are doing at them every day – everyone in your organization should.

  • Provide a ton of support to that narrow problem.

  • Be highly transparent internally. Tell the story publicly when it’s done.

Want to know more about how we create results with teams that are both highly accountable and highly supportive? Check out our playbook below!

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