Apr 4, 2008

Imperfect Performance

By Alyssa Rosenberg, arosenberg@govexec.com
April 3, 2008

During a recent trip to China, I visited a Tsinghua University classroom in Beijing to observe some graduate students in the school's international development program. But soon after settling into my seat at the back of the room, the students turned the tables and began asking me questions.

Specifically, they wanted to know how the U.S. government handles performance management. Most of the students are from Asian and African countries that look to China as a key driver of economic growth. But it was the United States they were interested in when it came to measuring the effectiveness of government.

I was obliged to tell them that, for all the combined efforts of public and private sector leaders, a library's-worth of studies and measurement tools, and many attempts to measure performance and to base compensation on those results, the U.S. government is still pretty bollixed up when it comes to evaluating itself and its employees.

A quick review of a few weeks' worth of stories from Government Executive illustrated how endemic the confusion over performance measurement is. For instance, in the past two weeks, advocates debated the role of politics in setting priorities and the grappling with budgets, Transportation Security Administrator Kip Hawley acknowledged that the agency's pay-for-performance system was sinking under the weight of its own complexity, and workforce planners and union leaders discussed whether inspiring extra effort or ensuring fairness should be the primary goal of a performance review and pay system.

The announcement last week that the National Nuclear Security Administration will launch pay for performance will do precisely nothing to help government leaders out of this compensation quagmire. If the program at NNSA succeeds, other agencies and departments likely will argue that the small agency's approach isn't scalable, or that the workforce profile is unique. If it fails, there will be a wide range of explanations for that failure. What is certain in any debate over performance measurement is there are no easy answers or simple blueprints.

None of this should come as a surprise to readers of this column. The National Security Personnel System alone provides a lifetime of cautionary tales about the difficulty of getting measurement and reward right, and the effect on employee morale and trust in managers when those programs fail.

But the Tsinghua students' questions were a reminder of how surprising -- and problematic -- it is that no one has really figured out how to measure government performance.

Government effectiveness isn't the only thing at stake. As one African student said, having a government that works lends credibility to other sectors of society. Until governments in developing countries can prove that their regulatory systems are strong and fair, the student pointed out, international investors may not -- and should not -- trust the businesses that they regulate.

The students couldn't come up with a solution either. I listened in on a group exercise to design a performance measurement system for a community center. Students tossed around ideas, including devising a customer service satisfaction survey, tracking the popularity of items in the center's food bank, and monitoring electricity records to see which facilities received the greatest use. None of the participants suggested evaluating the center's employees or surveying them on job satisfaction.

Perhaps in spite of its flawed programs, opposition and a lack of information, the U.S. government is ahead of the curve after all when it comes to performance management. No one may know precisely how to measure federal employees' job performance, but at least workforce planners and agency heads in this country know that it's a central issue.


Anonymous said...

We have a pay for performance metric to use for LANS upper management. Their "managerial effectiveness" was rated a dismal 35 out of 100 by NNSA. However, I'm absolutely sure this will have no effect on upper management pay or bonuses at the end of this fiscal year.

We also have a metric for the work done by the scientific staff in weapons stockpile stewardship. It was given a 100. However, expect LANS to offer nothing more than token raises to the general staff for this excellent effort.

Pay for performance only works when you have ethical management.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to large government contractors with hoards of PR, Legal, Government Relations lobbyists, and Congressionallies, performance has nothing to do with it. Sound like someplace you know?

Anonymous said...

Hey Pinky -

Can you start a new thread? The following is about the worst reason to extend a contract - duh, we haven't finished investigating. If this doesn't terminate a contract, don't hold your breath at LANS - now you know why regardless of how badly LANS performs - the LANS contract is here to stay. And NNSA will not dare to give LANS significant low scores. And so what if the scores are C's, D's and F's - what does it matter - LANS has a guaranteed profit of tens of millions of dollars per year for seven years plus options.

Also, fellow bloggers, what is the worst or the most laughable LANS management moment?

The U.S. State Department has agreed to renew Blackwater USA's license to protect diplomats in Baghdad for one year while the FBI investigates a 2007 incident in which the company's guards are accused of killing 17 Iraqis.

Assistant Secretary of State Gregory Starr told reporters Friday that because the shooting of Baghdad civilians is still under investigation, there is no reason not to renew the contract when it comes due in May.

Anonymous said...

Since the lawyers run everything, this is not surprising.

Anonymous said...

I don't have a lot of experience in the private sector, and changing the laboratory is a daunting task. Particularly to the degree that it is being changed now. So I cut the new LANS management team a good deal of slack. Anyone would struggle to a certain degree with this. However, this is pretty awful. There is no doubt about it at this point. The rate we are losing good scientists is alarming, and the burden of just stupid shit we have to deal with is crushing. Everything is rolled out at once with no clear thinking about impact, need, urgency, and so on. It just rolls out, one stupid thing after another. Some of the things that are being attempted are fine and needed, and difficult enough by themselves. But what do we do? We do them all at once and we do them poorly. Piss poor management if you ask me. I don't see much hope this will change any time soon either, unfortunately. Lots of people will pile on and say "I told you so," but the truth is no one knew how bad this would be. Until now.

Anonymous said...

I knew it was going to be more than awful when at our first meeting, our Bechtel manager looked down at us from his podium and said "I can't believe how educated you are". At first, we just looked around at each other and then we were offended and then we were amused. Later on we found out that he and his fellow Bechtelies had at a minimum BA degrees and some of degrees in teaching while many of us have advanced degrees. And these are the leaders but hey, they get to laugh all the way to the bank, as someone said, the revenge of the C students.

Anonymous said...

"I don't have a lot of experience in the private sector, and changing the laboratory is a daunting task. Particularly to the degree that it is being changed now. So I cut the new LANS management team a good deal of slack."

Oh come now. No experience with the private sector? Who do you think is running the country? Heard of Enron, World Com, Blackwater, Halliburton? When you fill up with gas, ever wonder why that gaping hole in your behind seems ten times wider afer you fill up? Yes, the private sector. It's all the private sector these days, so stop making excuses or pretending you don't get it. But if you insist on kissing up to LANS, you may as well use your name when you post. At least you'll get a promotion or two out of it. Plus your sense of denial makes you management material. But then again you already know that, don't you?

Anonymous said...

Here is an exercise for the curious. Next time you are at work bring up the "Jobs@LANL" web page and view all the positions that have been opened for new hires since the beginning of 2008.

Almost every single job that is posted on this site since Jan 1 involves engineering construction (HVAC specialist, construction management, procurement for construction, etc.). Almost none of the positions opened since the the start of Jan 1, 2008 are listings for scientists with advanced degrees. The future of LANL is clear from the recent LANS job postings.

It should come as no surprise that many of our future managers will be poorly education people with BA/BS degrees from places like Bechtel. The transformation of LANL is being engaged at top gear. Full speed ahead!

Anonymous said...

I'm not surprized Dr. Anastasio has not replied to your e-mail. This type of issue is above him; his lawyer(s) have advised him not to respond to you directly because of legal implications. You need to hit these guys with a lawsuit, it is the only means of communication with LANS. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Anonymous said...

"Oh come now. No experience with the private sector? Who do you think is running the country? Heard of Enron, World Com, Blackwater, Halliburton? When you fill up with gas, ever wonder why that gaping hole in your behind seems ten times wider afer you fill up? Yes, the private sector."

Re-read my note. I don't have much experienced being directly employed by the private sector, dumbass.

Anonymous said...

"The rate we are losing good scientists is alarming, and the burden of just stupid shit we have to deal with is crushing." - 1:37 AM

From Mikey to the staff:

I don't think you fully grasp the LANS plan. We WANT scientists to leave LANL. That's why we are issuing all this "stupid shit".

You people are extremely slow to understand what's going on here at LANL. I'm glad I'll soon be checking out of this place to head back to my home to Cali. My work here is almost done. Thanks for the perks and the pension boost. I'll be taking my LANS supplied sports car along with me when I leave.

Life is grand at the top!

- Mikey

Anonymous said...

I think telling them that SECENG is a dumb jackass would have summed it up.

Anonymous said...

The GAO (www.gao.gov) has issues a report that goes a long way explaining why this country is in a world of hurt when it comes to our energy security future.

Advanced Energy Technologies: Budget Trends and Challenges for DOE's Energy R&D Program
March 5, 2008


For decades, the nation has benefited from relatively inexpensive energy, in the process growing heavily reliant on conventional fossil fuels--oil, natural gas, and coal. However, in the current wake of higher energy costs and environmental concerns about fossil fuel emissions, renewed attention is turning to the development of advanced energy technologies as alternatives. In the United States, the Department of Energy (DOE) has long conducted research, development, and demonstration (R&D) on advanced renewable, fossil, and nuclear energy technologies. DOE's Office of Science has also funded basic energy-related research...GAO reviewed DOE's R&D budget data and strategic plans and obtained the views of experts in DOE, industry, and academia, as well as state and foreign government officials.

Between fiscal years 1978 and 1998, DOE's budget authority for renewable, fossil, and nuclear energy R&D fell 92 percent when adjusted for inflation (from its $6 billion peak in fiscal year 1978 to $505 million in fiscal year 1998). It has since rebounded to $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2008. Energy R&D funding in the late 1970s was robust in response to the 1973 energy crisis caused by constricted oil supplies. However, R&D funding plunged in the 1980s as oil prices returned to their historic levels. DOE's fiscal year 2009 budget, as compared with 2008, requests slightly less budget authority for renewable energy R&D, while seeking increases of 34 percent for fossil energy R&D and 44 percent for nuclear energy R&D. In addition, DOE is requesting $4.7 billion for basic research under its Office of Science. The development and deployment of advanced energy technologies present key technical, cost, and environmental challenges. DOE's energy R&D program has focused on reducing high up-front capital costs; improving the operating efficiency of advanced energy technologies to enable them to better compete with conventional energy technologies; and reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas linked to global warming, and pollutants that adversely affect public health and the environment. However, while DOE has spent $57.5 billion over the past 30 years for R&D on these technologies, the nation's energy portfolio has not dramatically changed--fossil energy today provides 85 percent of the nation's energy compared to 93 percent in 1973. Because DOE's energy R&D funding alone will not be sufficient to deploy advanced energy technologies, coordinating energy R&D with other federal energy-related programs and policies will be important. In addition, other governments and the private sector will play a key role in developing and deploying advanced energy technologies that can change the nation's energy portfolio.


We're spending more in Iraq each month than on our annual budget for Energy R&D?!!