What are the “Grand Challenges” in Public Administration? Make Your Voice Heard.

Almost anyone who has been engaged with government, either as a taxpayer, recipient of government services, government worker, academic, an employee or participant in a good government organization, or just someone interested in good government, recognizes that we face challenges. Cybersecurity, border security, climate change, shifting demographics, an aging workforce, natural disasters, and countless other challenges are becoming so pressing that something must be done. Are state, local and federal government ready to meet these and other challenges we may face?

I wish I could say the answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” The truth is that these are big challenges. One could even say that they are “Grand Challenges” that we will face at least through the 2020s, and probably long after that.

The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), an independent, nonprofit, Congressionally-chartered, and nonpartisan organization assisting government leaders in building more effective, efficient, accountable, and transparent organizations, is launching a new campaign to identify the Grand Challenges in Public Administration. The Academy’s initiative is designed to do more than simply identify the challenges — NAPA seeks identify how governments and supporting organizations can successfully address those challenges. Once the Grand Challenges are identified, NAPA will begin a process that motivates concrete action across the public administration community to solve them. Grand Challenges is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop and drive an agenda for government over the next decade, so the Academy wants everyone to have a voice.

As Chair of the Academy’s board of directors, I can assure ChiefHRO readers that the Academy wants the widest possible input — including from practitioners, academics, students, interest groups, and the general public — on two key questions.

  1. Over the next decade, what is a grand challenge that government (federal, state, and/or local) must address in order for American society to reach its full potential?
  2. Over the next decade, what is the most important thing that government can do to improve its management and operations so it has the capacity to address the most critical challenges facing the United States?

The Academy’s Grand Challenges Steering Committee, comprising distinguished representatives from across the public administration, scientific and media communities, will conduct a systematic analysis of the public’s ideas and ultimately announce a final set of Grand Challenges at the Academy’s annual meeting in November 2019, as well as on the Academy website and in other publications.

We often complain about problems in government, or problems we believe government can solve, but do not always see a way to go beyond complaining and get started on making a difference. This Academy initiative is a way to participate and have your voice heard. More information about the campaign, the selection process, and the submission process can be found on the Grand Challenges website. Please submit your ideas through April 30, 2019.


OPM Can Help Agencies with Performance Evaluation, But OPM is Not the Problem

A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, Opportunities Exist for OPM to Further Innovation in Performance Management, highlighted the performance management practices of four agencies and indicated OPM could do more to share best practices among agencies. The report focuses on Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) responses on questions that relate to employee confidence in the performance evaluation process.

GAO concluded that employees generally believe agencies are doing reasonably well with respect to four of OPM’s Five Phases of Performance Management, and need to improve on the fifth (rewarding).

GAO noted that OPM is not adequately updating its performance management section of its website. They said “OPM does not have a process for regularly updating its performance management website with new guidance and resources to ensure that the information is readily available. Agency employees, such as human capital specialists, who visit OPM’s performance management website may be unable to find or access the most recent guidance and training available.” GAO went on to say “Although OPM identified innovation as one of its five values, we were unable to find any recent information on innovation for performance management in the government on OPM’s website. Specifically, we used “innovation performance management” as a search term on the website and found the “Promoting Innovation in Government” web page, which included archived material and was no longer being updated (see figure 15). As a result, agencies that use OPM’s website as a source of performance management guidance would be unable to find any current resources on performance management innovation. OPM officials explained that older material is archived based on the current leadership’s vision. The officials also confirmed that OPM did not have other active websites that contained innovative performance management practices gathered from external sources, which could be shared with other federal agencies. Implementing a strategic approach to sharing innovation in performance management would then allow OPM to provide relevant and updated information that agencies could use to modernize their performance management systems.”

While I believe GAO’s conclusion is sound, it does not go far enough and it may be shifting responsibility for the government’s shortcomings in performance management to OPM rather than focusing on more troubling findings. The report uses FEVS data to identify employee perceptions of how performance management is handled. It also uses the same data to determine how leaders perceive the job they are doing with respect to performance management. The views of employees and leaders differ in a big way. Only 39 percent of employees responded positively on questions related to how their agencies reward good performance. Only one-third agreed that “Promotions in my work unit are based on merit.” The percentage of senior leaders who agreed with that statement was 40 points higher. And that is the problem.

Asking OPM to put out better information on performance management is a good idea. Highlighting innovative practices, including those from the private sector, is a good idea. But what happens if the agency leaders think they are doing a great job already? An agency is unlikely to change how it handles performance management, including promotions, if the agency’s senior leaders think everything is going well. That disconnect between employee and management perceptions is a divide that must be bridged.

I have had discussions with senior executives and managers about this very issue when I was a senior executive in government myself. Sitting in our private offices, surrounded by staff, and with access to large amounts of information, senior leaders are often isolated from the people they lead. More often than not, what I would hear about subjects such as selection processes is “we know we are running a fair process and every selection produces unhappy applicants.” Whether the process is fair or not is not good enough. If the majority of employees do not have confidence in the decisions their leaders make regarding performance, recognition and promotion, morale and engagement will suffer. Good performers who believe they cannot get fair treatment will go elsewhere, and agency performance will suffer.

We can get OPM to improve how it shares information, but the biggest improvements will come when we convince people in leadership roles that they have to work on the trust issue. And they have to recognize that their perception of the agency where they work is influenced by their privileged status in the agency. If that does not change, it does not matter how much better OPM shares information.