Taking Measure of Agency Performance
Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Measuring performance is crucial for identifying what federal agencies are doing well and where greater work and attention is needed. To bolster performance management in agencies, Congress passed the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010, which formally established the positions of chief operating officer and performance improvement officer. How has performance management been affected by the legislation? Where have advances been made and what challenges remain?

That’s what the Partnership for Public Service (PPS) and Grant Thornton set out to understand in the new report, “Taking Measure: Moving from Process to Practice in Performance Management.” Between March and July of this year, they interviewed more than 50 performance improve­ment officers (PIOs) and deputy PIOs, held three focus groups, and administered a survey on performance management to determine whether performance leaders thought their agencies were making progress on improving performance.

Wide range of stages among agencies

The report concludes that there seems to be a wide range of stages that agencies have reached in building a performance culture. PIOs at most large agencies have begun setting up the building blocks of a performance improvement culture and are “gear­ing up to make better use of data.” Unfortunately, the PPS also found that “most of the action is taking place at top agency levels and has not filtered down, so agencies have a distance to go and need support from leadership to press harder on this issue.”


Meanwhile, at some agencies, perfor­mance management leaders are restrained by a lack of resources, and therefore, focus on activities they think will pack the most punch. And uncovering the best data for assessing performance is not always available or being gathered. A few agen­cies, though, have been able to tie performance to budget efforts in a signifi­cant way. 

Whatever the stage, in inter­views and surveys, respondents agreed:

  • The focus on a few top agency goals has renewed enthusiasm for measuring performance.
  • Many agencies are making progress on instituting a performance culture, but data is not being used at all levels to inform decisions or budgets; the amount of data available can be overwhelming, and Congress and agencies are not communicating well about the data and what it shows.
  • Required quarterly review meetings are a huge step forward, bringing top leaders together to discuss performance goals, progress and obstacles, and to decide the agency’s next moves; at many agencies, senior leaders attend and deputy secretaries—or even secretaries or the top administrator—run the meetings.
  • Despite advances, many agencies are missing skills that contribute to a performance culture and find it a challenge to figure out the best things to measure.
  • The 2010 statute requiring the establishment of COO and PIO positions has given visibility to senior agency leaders, who are actively contributing to agency culture transformation. 

Report recommendations to performance leaders

Across the board, the report recommends that “PIOs, COOs and other agency leaders must direct actions to advance a performance management culture and im­prove how the federal government makes decisions that benefit the citizens it serves.” Specifically, leaders need to:

  • redouble efforts to motivate all agency units to base decisions on performance data
  • push for greater integration of performance man­agement activities at all agencies
  • encourage the use of regular data-driv­en reviews at all levels
  • seek informa­tion about performance measures used by others
  • establish priority goals that involve more than one agency unit as a way to increase collaboration
  • create a stronger link between budget and perfor­mance.

To download the full report, go to 

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at 

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