Getting SMART About Performance Management Measures

By Stephenie Overman Mar 26, 2008
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How can federal agency officials establish smart performance management measures that align with organizational goals?

Gary A. Steinberg, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) associate deputy assistant secretary for human resources, spelled it out at a recent federal government performance summit, saying they should make sure that those goals are:

  • Specific, clear and understandable.
  • Measurable, verifiable and results-oriented.
  • Attainable.
  • Relevant to the mission.
  • Time-bound with a schedule and milestones.

Avoid rushing through the performance planning process, Steinberg warned during a session conducted at the Government Performance Summit held Feb. 25-27 in Arlington, Va. He described six key steps that make up the performance management cycle:

  • Linking to the mission.
  • Communicating expectations.
  • Supporting work processes.
  • Measuring business outcomes.
  • Assessing individual performance.
  • Rewarding excellence.

The 2001 adoption of President Bush’s President’s Management Agenda (PMA) made government agencies accountable for their performance and the performance of their programs. The PMA focuses on areas of weakness, such as strategic management of human capital, across the government where improvements and the most progress can be made.

Good Measures

Richard Beck, the Department of the Interior’s director for planning and performance management, emphasized that a good performance measure is “readily understandable, quantifiable and results-oriented.”

The measure should be “consistently applied” and “clear on the expected achievement. … It must be useful,” he said.

In addition, it must be tied to senior management’s interests. “You want to capture their attention, to get them to use [the measure] in their decision-making process,” Beck said.

Ownership of the measure “belongs with whom it is [measuring],” he continued. That ownership includes the responsibility for setting and achieving targets, reporting results, and explaining variances and subsequent actions.

Jon Desenberg, senior consultant at The Performance Institute in Arlington, Va., reiterated the need for measures that “clearly define mission, vision and values. Look at strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.”

The key to meaningful measurement, he said, is “starting to think beyond everyday activities and output. People who are tasked with performance measurement often just count whatever is easiest to count—the number of calls made, the number of people spoken with. You need to get away from measuring those to really measuring intermediate outcomes, [which are] the changes required to achieve the end outcome. This is where most of the work happens,” he said. Finally, there’s “the end outcome, the end goal or ultimate benefit.”

This kind of performance measurement requires “a change in perspective,” Desenberg said. “You’re executing against strategy. That’s quite different from keeping track of daily activities. Strategic planning and performance management are not just connected. They are two sides of the same coin.”

Budgets and investments should be made based on clear contribution to performance, he continued. And at the end of the planning cycle, take time to evaluate the results. “If you’re not checking, you are not closing the loop.

“Performance management should not be micromanagement,” he added. “It should be results, results, results. Once you start measuring your goals, people cannot fudge. Success will mean the same thing to every person.”

Assessing Individual Performance

When assessing individual performance as part of the overall plan, HHS’ Steinberg said, managers should discuss with each employee the importance of the alignment of the department’s strategic plan, the organization’s plan and the individual employee’s plan.

In the appraisal, he said, managers should avoid overrating a poor performer as a motivational tool because that rating will stand as a record of what the agency is willing to accept from the employee in the future.

Also, review the entire period covered by the appraisal and avoid focusing on one specific incident, Steinberg said. Base the review on accurate and factual data, keeping in mind that “length of service or an employee’s grade does not necessarily mean better performance.”

Finally, do not rush through the appraisal, Steinberg said, but take time to record accurate information that truly reflects the individual's performance.

Stephenie Overman is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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