Goals, Objectives, and the Everyday Employee

Federal employees who perform civil service work year in and year out do not need to have their evaluations tied to the agency’s strategic planning process.

I am one of those Feds who has always had a problem with missions, visions, objectives and goals. During my 13+ years as a Federal worker, I liked my jobs, cared about what I did, and worked pretty hard to get things done right. I figure that the incoming Assistant Secretary of this or that department may not know the details of what we do and still need to chart a course for that agency’s future. But those who perform civil service year in and year out do not need to have their evaluations tied to that strategic planning process.

Who’s buying this stuff?

As an example, consider the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA). I know that lots of different things go on inside a VA Medical Center, and that much of their work is done outside the confines of the hospital complex. Does each VAMC employee need to be evaluated in ways that tie them to some mission statement, and its attendant goals and objectives?

Who actually believes this will help nurses, dieticians, and medical records clerks understand what they do for a living? Who thinks they’ll do a better job if their work is tallied and counted to see if their individual shares of these goals are being met? To me, most of this rhetoric and effort seems unnecessary and ill-invested.

When a shift nurse has a floor of full rooms and ailing patients with endless needs – do goals and objectives matter? Through the night he will answer calls, update charts, dispense medications, etc, etc. Some nurses are faster, some are more agreeable, some are more knowledgeable, and some are more dedicated. But will the goals and objectives make any difference tonight… or tomorrow… or is this just some theory that’s being sold by a consultant who is more versed in theory than nursing?

Recycling old theories

I’m not saying there aren’t better and worse Federal employees, nor do I think we should do away with appraisals. Having been a “C” student in school, I can attest to the value of honest feedback. It motivated me to not fail and to open my books now and then. I just think that having my personal workplace bean count go forward so it can support my boss’s metrics is silly. And don’t forget, his objectives must support the next level up, and so on up to some cabinet secretary. Is this important or is it a big waste of time?

We’ve returned to an era where missions and goals and objectives are not only consuming the attention of agency management (which may well be for the best) but are being foisted on day-to-day employees by strategic planners and human capitalists. Federal executives seem to have in-baskets full of “balanced scorecards”, “strategic objectives”, “performance measures”, and so on and so forth. While they may be important to those charting an agency’s course, do those following the course need to obsess over how they’re contributing?

Consultants are making plenty of money showing us how we can understand what we’re doing. Then, once upper management can find some agreement as to what we’re doing (and we were doing it before they started this, and we’ll be doing it when the next group of consultants is hired) everyone must then be “tied” to the “strategic plan”. It didn’t work in the 1970’s when Peter Drucker (the brilliant management guru of his time) called the same process “Management by Objectives” (MBO) and it’s failing again in this first decade of the 21st century.

Cascading the bean count

For example, I read that the Department of Veterans Affairs is struggling to serve the medical and financial needs of new and longer-term vets. It stands to reason. The goalposts keep moving and resources are often stretched and/or inadequate. It must be an awesome management challenge for DVA and I imagine many senior leaders (both political and career) are working long and tireless hours to maximize efficiencies. Their strategic plans are important and often need to be quantified and measured.

What I question is the requirement to translate the goals and objectives of such leaders down to Audiologists and Food Service Workers. To apply the hospital’s changing and demanding metrics to their jobs seems more vain than necessary. Who has time to design systems for counting the number of blood test results submitted late or the number of food trays that are accurately assembled? I’m not saying these things aren’t important. We all know they are. My concern is why are supervisors and managers being encouraged to maintain “bean counts” (objective measures) in individual employees’ performance standards?

Dancing to the rhythms of GPRA

Human resources folks know this is nonsense. How is a Staffing Specialist supposed to demonstrate commitment to the Air Force’s goals and objectives? Hers is a day-in/day-out job. There are vacancies, announcements, applications, selections, etc. If she’s been working in HR for 15 years, don’t you think she already understands how her job is connected to your agency’s mission?

Give her metrics if you want. Tie her tightly to the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA). Enroll her in your latest pay-for-performance system. Be sure to burden her supervisor (and her – don’t forget “self-evaluations”!) to keep counts and scorecards. In the end, however, if she’s like most of you reading this article (from the lowest to the loftiest) she’ll do her job as best she knows how.

As “that total quality management guy”, W. Edwards Deming, advised us in the 1970’s – 80’s individual metrics don’t teach us how to do our jobs better. They teach us how to keep up with a bean count. If management is really going to promote, compute raises, or fire people on that count, our individual metrics may actually serve to undermine the very mission they were devised to support. People will compete for themselves and forget teamwork and overall mission in the bargain. …and these theories were the ones that superceded Drucker’s.

Metrics and motivation

Executives perform the difficult task of gathering and analyzing data. Those metrics help them understand where their organization has been… and where it’s likely to go. They are (hopefully) trained and skilled at using the data to allocate and reallocate human and other resources most effectively. It’s a very demanding job. Unfortunately, it won’t be made any easier believing that promulgating such data will motivate an attorney or electrician or engineer.

Consider a Federal attorney who spends most of her time analyzing contracts. The contracts will support mission accomplishment – otherwise why were they let out for bid? How about the electrician who maintains, repairs, and reconfigures wiring and power distribution on your military base. Are we unclear as to why he does it or how it contributes? Is the engineer who is planning and designing roadways that will stand up to both traffic and environmental demands in need of perspective as to why that matters?

No doubt about it, the Government’s landscape is broad and complex. Exploring it, I have learned that civil servants are clear as to where they fit. How are senior management’s metrics helping them? Do the folks in OPM and the Office of Management and Budget actually believe that, if left without objective measures, these folks will not be motivated to do their jobs next week?

What really makes us go?

I never worked in what bureaucrats often refer to as the “Head Shed” or “Puzzle Palace”. My brief Federal career was spent “in the field” rather than “the big house”. Furthermore, I am unable to analyze data as quickly and thoroughly as analysts and executives. I do, however, have a clue regarding what motivates the people with whom I worked. It seems most often to be a reflection of their commitment to their jobs and the public that benefits from them doing those jobs; coupled with a desire to support their coworkers and their leadership. GPRA goals aren’t even on the horizon.

The conscientious Claims Representative will go “the extra mile”. She’ll take the time to explain something clearly to a member of the public who has difficulty understanding, she’ll help out a coworker who’s overburdened, and she’ll volunteer for that “special project” that no one else has time to do. In the bargain, she may earn fewer tally strokes relating to her performance appraisal.

From her vantage point, the mission walks through the door and calls on the phone every day. Moreover, it may not serve your agency’s mission or the public to judge her by metrics intended to connect that job to the agency’s GPRA goals. I’ve found that government’s current efforts to recycle Management by Objectives serves more to obscure than illuminate – contrary to what the books and consultants assure us is true.

A counter-productive plan

The Offices of Management and Budget and, by extension, the Office of Personnel Management are encouraging agencies to have a “Results-Oriented Performance Culture System”. Yet supervisory time is often wasted developing “elements”, “standards”, “objectives”, and “indicators” intended to measure those results at the individual level. If all those metrics were actually counted and logged (and many of them are not), even more time is invested.

That management time might be better spent watching Federal employees do their jobs – commending those devoted to the mission. When was the last time your boss thanked you for your efforts? In other cases, it would be well-used documenting failings so corrective action can be taken and justified.

Many Federal agencies are insisting that individual appraisal be tied to GPRA strategic plans. This may read and diagram well as metrics cascade downward from the top of an agency to the bottom. In fact, the realities of leaders and led are very different. HR’s attempts to translate those goals and objectives into individual performance standards may prove counterproductive.

About the Author

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to trainingfeds.com.