Performance improvement has 'turned the corner' in government

Wednesday - 4/25/2012, 5:55am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

Download mp3

Over the next seven months, the Office of Personnel Management will finalize guidance and training standards for feds who work to improve their agency's performance.

These two documents will be the second and third phases of the requirements under the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in January 2011.

OPM met the law's first requirement in January by issuing the specific skills employees need — known as competencies — for these jobs.

"We are looking at our current occupational series and structure to see what extent it supports this type of work," said Andrea Bright, OPM's deputy director of human resources. Before changing jobs recently, she managed the classification and assessment policy office at OPM. "We will need to see if there are big, whole-scale changes we need to make or if there are tweaks we need to make. It may be what we have is close and we just need to tweak things; we may need to update things; we may need to change titles or add titles. I think the business analytics, which is the big hot phrase of the day, is probably missing, and is something that probably needs to be incorporated."

Bright, speaking Tuesday at the Association of Government Accountants performance improvement conference in Washington, said OPM will take care of the policy and agencies will address individual position descriptions.

Additionally, Bright said OPM will work with agency chief learning officers on incorporating the position descriptions and competencies into training.

She said both of these documents are required by law to be completed by Jan. 4, two years after the bill was signed by the President.

Too many soft skills?

The competency model includes 34 skills across three jobs areas: performance improvement officer (PIO), PIO staff and agency goal leaders.

One common complaint from both government and industry experts about the competency model is most of the skills are considered soft skills, such as leadership, communication, external awareness and partnering. Some of the harder skills, such as organizational performance analysis or performance measurement, were included but were just a part of the overall package and not singled out.

Bright said training would be key to addressing the specific harder skills because the competency model was suppose to just lay out high level requirements.

Richard Beck, the Interior Department's deputy PIO, said the Performance Improvement Council, which includes PIOs and deputy PIOs, approved the competencies and felt certain soft skills are just as important as the ability to do analysis.

"The analysis isn't so much crunching numbers. The analysis is the understanding that once you crunch the numbers, what does it mean?" Beck said. "And being able to convey that especially to decision-makers because if you bring a whole bunch of details of analysis to them, that's not going to help them make their decision. A lot of us have been finding that and we are re-tooling what we are doing to be more effective at not just doing the number crunching, but how do we bring the results to decisions-makers to help facilitate them in making decisions."

The competency model is just one way agencies are trying to improve performance management. The Obama administration has mandated agencies focus on three to eight high-priority goals and analyze their progress using data.

Agencies doing better job in setting goals

Shelley Metzenbaum, the Office of Management and Budget's associate director of performance and personnel management, said the government has turned the corner when it comes to using performance data to make decisions and improve how they meet their mission.

Metzenbaum said in the fiscal 2013 budget request agencies detailed about 100 goals.

"What's interesting about the agency goals is some of them, about half, such as Interior's goals to permit renewable energy on Interior land, build on a previous goals, but set new ambitious targets," she said. "Other goals tackle a problem addressed in 2011, but frame it in a new ways that are more likely to get even higher impact. Still other goals, such as a Commerce goal on weather forecasting, are in wholly new areas."

Metzenbaum added agencies have learned to set better goals and focus more on outcomes. OMB led a cross-agency team to develop specific goals last summer in preparation for the budget request as a way to bring together best practices and build upon previous efforts.

The administration also outlined 14 cross-agency goals in the budget request.