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June 04, 2019

Building Capacity to Perform:  A Strategy for the U.S. Federal Government

Posted by Steve Redburn[1]

Governments around the world increasingly employ a growing body of evidence about performance to inform their budget and policy choices and to implement those choices.  However, most of the routines established for this focus on the top leadership.  To fully exploit the opportunities offered by performance information, it is important to engage operating program managers and their staffs at all levels of the bureaucracy.

A recent National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) report Improving Organizational Health and Performance in Government by a special panel of Academy fellows describes a vision of a U.S. federal government transformed into an organization that:

  • learns from experience;
  • constructively engages employees at all levels in this shared enterprise; and
  • continually strives toward higher standards of excellence in achieving its many prescribed missions and policy objectives. 

It is one thing to envision, another thing to achieve. The panel’s challenge was to develop a realistic strategy that could, over time, realize such a change. They understood that changing one of the largest, most complex organizations in the world requires a learning process that will stretch over many years and multiple Presidential Administrations.  The panel also proposed, however that the elements of this approach be put in place soon. The report set out steps that the current Administration could take immediately to establish a learning process that would facilitate agency performance improvement strategies and inform future actions.

The panel’s proposed strategy would build on the existing U.S. federal performance framework’s strengths and extend its reach and impact from the executive suites to agency operating units. 

The federal government is large and diverse, therefore a one-size-fits-all prescription is unlikely to work.  Instead, the panel suggests individual agencies take primary responsibility for improving capacity to perform their various missions and hold themselves accountable for improvement.  Since the knowledge basis is limited, agencies would be encouraged to innovate and evaluate approaches tailored to their circumstances.  The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) could play an important catalytic role in facilitating and supporting agency efforts, working with the President’s Management Council (PMC) and with the support of the Performance Improvement Council (PIC), to ensure that learning is spread across government.

The first element of the proposed strategy would use existing data to assess and diagnose the current state of an agency’s or operating unit’s ‘organizational health’, defined as an ability to use its resources effectively to achieve its goals and to learn from experience, and sustained high levels of performance.  The proposed first steps include using existing data to assess and diagnose the state of unit-level health, including employees’ engagement with their unit’s performance, as well as sources of any identified management problems, making these assessments the basis for actions to improve organizational capacity and performance.

A second strategy element would involve developing a learning-based approach to using these assessments to strengthen organizational capacity and performance.  The Department of Labor’s establishment and use of a ‘learning agenda’ has been a model for this, and elements of its approach were included in the new Foundations of Evidence-based Policy Act signed in January 2019. The first steps include mobilizing peer-manager networks to transfer knowledge and lessons about performance improvement across organizational units as part of a remedial strategy and establishing a system of continuous contact with employees at all levels through shared performance dashboards, on-line forums, and other means of continuous engagement on how to improve mission delivery. The panel also recommends that agencies hold managers of operating-level units accountable for developing Unit Development Plans that specify what constitutes “organizational health” for their unit and planned actions to improve it.

The third strategy element would help managers make effective use of a flood of new data relevant to their operations by giving them tools to access, analyze, and apply this data, as well as the skills to manage in this new data-rich environment.  Proposed first steps include training and mentoring managers to upgrade their skills in identifying and using administrative and other performance indicators to support improved management and service delivery and encouraging “communities of practice” within and across agencies.

Executing such a strategy will not be a day’s journey – it will be more like an odyssey.  Achieving the panel’s vision of organizational health and performance requires a cold-eyed appreciation of how hard and long the journey will be.  To succeed, the federal government will need a process that encourages agencies to test and adapt elements of the strategy and to learn from that experience what it takes to engage people at all levels in a shared endeavor toward higher standards of performance.


[1] Fellow, National Academy of Public Administration and Professorial lecturer, Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, George Washington University. 

Note: The posts on the IMF PFM Blog should not be reported as representing the views of the IMF. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the IMF or IMF policy.


yes maybe you can add philosophy education as politic approach too.
nice sharing

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