Once, back when such events were in vogue, I helped lead a troupe of 100 executives on a journey of self-discovery in the rain forests of Central America. It was a very cool trip-and very costly. The logistics alone must have run into the millions, given the planes, jeeps, boats and more planes used to ferry the participants half way around the world, deep into the jungle, and back out again.
Was it worth it? Well, there were thoughtful meetings around the campfire. There were some frank discussions with the CEO. The group bonded – sort of. And one executive had either an epiphany or cardiac arrest when he accidentally bumped into me moments after someone flipped the switch on the generator and plunged the campsite into the inkiest nothingness most of us had ever experienced.
I’ve often wondered, though, about the trip’s real ROI, and whether or not it would have been more effective to simply lock the executives behind boardroom doors until, smelly and exhausted- and without the benefit of giant butterflies, howling monkeys and poisonous snakes-they had hashed out the organization’s toughest problems.
I was reminded of that trek when I opened up Performance.gov, the highly touted performance management website created by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to track the government’s efforts to operate more effectively.
Jeffrey Zients, OMB’s chief performance officer, says Performance.gov is designed to track the Obama administration’s efforts to create a government that is more efficient, innovative and responsive. The site, he says, “is also a valuable tool for sharing best practices across the government – supporting learning and coordination across agencies.”
At a reported $1.7 million to build, it certainly is costly. But valuable? Not so much, at least the version I looked at. Beyond some predictable PR pieces, glitzy graphics and links to public documents, it’s pretty dull – far less impressive than the dozens of free or 99-cent apps clogging my iPhone.
In its current form, I doubt it advances the government’s performance any further than dressing up the presentation of box scores would improve the performance of the Washington Nationals.
So what really drives performance improvement?
If you attended the Partnership for Public Service’s Service to America (Sammies) gala last month, you already know the answer. All you had to do was listen to the stories of the nine winners honored for their outstanding contributions to the federal government.
Although the black-tie affair had the feeling of an Oscars ceremony, these individuals were not glitterati, even by government standards. A few were downright nerdy – in an extremely complementary sense. They were people of substance, individuals who had accomplished great things in the face of tremendous adversity.
They were people like Diane Braunstein, of the Social Security Administration, who created a compassion allowance program for the terminally and seriously ill so they could received approval for disability benefits within weeks. There were people like research hydrologist Paul Hsieh, who was named Federal Employee of the Year for his role in crunching vital numbers and providing key information to help successfully cap the Deepwater Horizon oil well.
I could be wrong, but I doubt that Performance.gov will ever have the impact of even a single Sammie winner. If Zients and the OMB are serious about changing the culture of performance in the government, they need to spend less time and money on glitzy, high-tech sideshows-albeit informative ones-and focus on the tough, gritty job of creating a cadre of leaders with the competencies of Sammies winners, leaders capable of building a true performance culture.
It would require creating challenging assessment, selection, and development programs that, over time, would change the behaviors and shift a culture that now not only protects mediocrity, but in some cases fosters it.
It’s harder, messier work than creating a pretty website. It will be for many, a painful process. But in the end, it will provide the sort of ROI that the American taxpayer expects and deserves.
Scott Spreier is a senior consultant with Hay Group. He works with clients in both the public and private sectors.