A roundtable discussion with key members of the Performance Improvement Council sheds light on how federal agencies plan and execute their performance priorities.
PIC is comprised of the performance improvement officers of federal agencies and departments, as well as senior officials from the Office of Management and Budget. It collaborates to improve the performance of federal programs by facilitating methods to assess problems and opportunities, as well as plan and set priorities. What's more, performance improvement officers report candidly and concisely to key stakeholders to help accelerate agency and program performance improvements.
The Public Manager spoke with three performance managers—Dana Roberts, senior advisor of the PIC; Stephanie Brown, graphic facilitator, collaboration designer, and lead for the PIC Collaboration Studio; and Bethany Blakey, capability-building manager for the PIC—to garner insight on how federal agencies can better plan and execute their performance priorities.
In what ways (big or small) does the Performance Improvement Council assist federal agencies with meeting performance goals?
Roberts: While small, with just six full-time employees, the Performance Improvement Council is open to consulting with any federal agency on performance measurement and management. Part of our team focuses on the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act. This group spends most of its time helping the biggest agencies develop and refine their agency priority goals so that they're meaningful—both for the agency and for the public. To us, this set of 99 goals for the federal government is a critical tool for accountability. Helping agencies get them right is of utmost importance. The PIC staff also helps agencies develop performance measures for all levels of program monitoring, establish performance management (Stat) systems, and share best practices across the federal government.
Brown: For example, we created the Collaboration Studio, which uses action-based strategies to help agencies solve leadership or cross-cutting challenges. The Office of Executive Councils has a power—unique in the government—to convene cross-agency conversations. The PIC has leveraged this convening power to deliver its Collaboration Studio services. These services create engagements that deliver lasting results with built-in buy-in from participants. These are not your regular one- or two-hour meetings that happen week after week. Instead, we design highly interactive half-day, full-day, or multiday events with intense focus on the challenge to accelerate progress.
Blakey: If we think of nearly the entire federal government as our audience, and we basically do, then we have to be very strategic in what we take on. PIC focuses on demonstrating the value of particular approaches and techniques. Then we have to deliver it in a way that builds momentum and can take on a life of its own within the agencies.
As part of a long-term, integrated strategy to reach federal employees at all levels and in all locations, PIC is in phase 2 of a kind of "tripod" of initiatives that will help any fed learn what performance management is all about and how they can leverage its practices. For the first leg, we piloted five foundations' courses with great success. Now that we know they add value and there is demand, we are undergoing an instructional design effort to ready the courses for phase 3, which is to scale up.
For the second leg, we built an online space to post, rate, and review things such as guides, templates, articles, and videos, as well as learning opportunities. We thankfully have an expert joining the team shortly who will modernize the format, allowing me to focus on content. We expect to launch in mid-2016.
For the third leg, we run the Performance Enthusiast and Ambassador program, which is designed for midcareer employees and focuses mostly on performance culture with the opportunity to learn a few useful performance skills. The first tier is intended to arm enthusiastic people with the language, access, network, and information they need to be a more integral part of agency improvement efforts. The second tier is intended to arm those informed employees with the skills they need to successfully inform and motivate others to take advantage of the variety of performance management, improvement, and solutions that are available. The program relies on the performance learning website plus training courses and workshops for most of its content—thus, the integrated tripod effect.
Currently, we are undergoing a program evaluation, and expect to leverage the evaluation insights to scale the program so that we can reach more than 20 employees at time. More importantly, we plan to expand beyond the D.C. area.
What do you see as some of your greatest challenges and greatest rewards?
Roberts: One challenge for the PIC is, of course, our size. We are limited, and have to be selective about what we take on. Still, we do a lot and the rewards are great. I love to see the progress that agencies and bureaus make when they use performance data better because of us—whether we provided a best practice, helped their staff develop a new reporting structure, or gave some other assistance.
Blakey: As far as agencies are concerned, there are several critical challenges, such as organization culture, skills gaps, and constantly shifting priorities, to name a few. But if I had to choose just one, it would be how to reach, design, and deliver assistance for middle managers who are in the throes of delivering on agency missions. We don't speak their language. They have way too much on their plates, and they are expected to be responsive to everything that comes their way.
So when I can help a program manager carve out a promising path that will improve outcomes—through strategies and tactics, coaching or a rotational experience, or a workshop on logic models, or by making a professional connection to someone who can serve as an adviser—I go home happy. I get really jazzed when I see them go off and do great things such as launch a prize challenge that will fill a long-standing data collection gap or convene researchers, scientists, and academics to expand and accelerate opportunities for technology transfer.
Brown: We've designed six "studio" engagements to address the challenges Bethany mentions. My favorite is the Innovation Sprint. Through a collaborative and hands-on process, teams can unleash their creative potential to solve challenges with laser focus and ingenuity in a compressed timeframe. The Innovation Sprint takes a design-thinking approach to help teams gather insights from users, test assumptions about how to solve the challenge, and then rapidly prototype solutions. What excites me most is to see the passion for agency missions reignited in participants as they see their ideas grow and evolve with the creative intelligence of their peers.
What was your career path to performance management?
Stephanie: You may be surprised to learn that I started my education in fine arts and archaeology—and that both of these fields are quite present in the work I do today. But first a little context, after more than 10 years in city, state, and federal government, the thing I experienced too often was a lack of listening to the voices of employees, the users of the systems that are critical to achieving outcomes. As a facilitator, I was frustrated. The experience from the frontlines was failing to be heard and appreciated. This drove me to go back to get my master's in organization development and knowledge management.
During that time, I was introduced to graphic facilitation, a method of synthesizing dialogue into colorful murals using icons, imagery and text. The process inherently provides a conduit for all voices in the room to feel heard and included. The PIC recognized the value of this approach when convening cross-agency teams and brought me on as a graphic facilitator. As far as I can determine, the PIC has been the first government team to bring in a full-time federal employee to provide graphic facilitation services.
Dana: I stumbled into this field, but can now proudly say that I am a performance professional with more than 10 years' experience. I began my federal career working in the statistical unit of a small bureau when I was detailed to work in the bureau policy shop. I began supporting the performance officer (PO) of that bureau and found that both the process and the accountability message really resonated with me. After about a year, my boss pursued other opportunities and I became the PO. I loved working directly with programs and facilitating the presentation of their performance data in the budget document, as well as assisting them with complex reporting processes—with an eye to how to make it meaningful to them. I continued in that position for about five years when I was hired to be the PO at a much larger bureau. After almost five years there, I leapt again and landed here at the PIC.
Bethany: I think I was destined for this career. I am completely wired for it and have done some version of it ever since I can remember. I actually started off choosing a mission area to work in: criminal justice. I wanted to design and open my own halfway house because I thought it could (and should) be done better. Better socialization skills, higher quality employment, greater community connections, lower recidivism rate—through respectful treatment that aggressively challenged each person to be the best version of themselves. Don't laugh at my naiveté; I still believe that. Then I got some great advice while interning at a state community correctional facility (aka halfway house): expand my thinking. I was encouraged to think more broadly because I just might enjoy and be able to help in other mission areas as well. I stayed focused on criminal justice for a while longer, but I ended up learning about several forms of management and improvement applicable to any mission-focused program or organization.
Can you share an interesting project you are currently working on?
Brown: There are so many! One project that has made a big impression was the IT Solutions Challenge, championed by the Federal CIO Tony Scott and Anne Rung, administrator of Federal Procurement Policy. The IT Solution Challenge was an initiative to engage GS 9-13 level rising stars in the IT and IT acquisition community.
Specifically, they were asked, "What is the one thing that if implemented could make work life easier for you and your federal colleagues?" Over eight months, 39 participants from 19 agencies formed cross-agency teams to explore a shared challenge, interview users, and build prototypes. The goal was to tap into the hands-on experiences of the front lines and find innovative solutions based on their fresh perspectives.
As the facilitator for the challenge, it's been exciting to see how gaining insights from users drove the teams through multiple iteration cycles and helped them build prototypes that solved users' needs. In the end, two winning teams emerged. Their projects are now moving into the next cycle to evaluate implementation options. It has been exciting to see how empowered these teams members are in seeing their idea take root and grow. We will be doing many more of these.
Roberts: One of my most interesting projects since arriving at the PIC is co-leading (with my colleague Bethany Blakey) the Leaders Delivery Network. This network pulls together 25 career program leaders (mostly linked to the agency priority goals) for bimonthly sessions that include speakers, workshops, and action planning. We are in the first few months of the program and I continue to be amazed by the breadth of experience and impressive nature of our network participants. Their eagerness to use this network to learn more and become better program managers is inspiring, and I'm honored to be part of leading this group from great to even greater.
Blakey: The Modern Government Management Traits (MGMT) is another promising project based on Google's Project Oxygen. According to Google research, there are eight behavioral traits that make for a good manager, regardless of the context. Because a manager's primary focus is on orchestrating the work of their staff, that supervisory relationship is incredibly important. Luckily, we have a workforce that has a pretty strong public service motivation. But it is hard to cultivate that when managers are running around with their hair on fire all the time. Or worse, we have all experienced that manager who just doesn't get it.
The MGMT gives managers and supervisors simple, low-investment ways to genuinely engage employees by practicing good management behaviors in these eight categories—whether they get it or not and whether they are ridiculously busy or not. They are mostly common sense behaviors, like asking an employee how things are going. Really, it can be that simple. Ask the question then just listen.
The manager's job is to coordinate all the resources available and make sure that all the people who need to deliver have what they need to do that, individually and as a unit. So ask, listen, and discover some obstacles you can help remove, connections you can make among them, or opportunities you can help them access.
Meet the Performance Managers
Senior Advisor of Performance Improvement Council
Prior to joining the PIC team in June of 2015, Dana Roberts spent the previous 12 years within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—with 10 years working with performance measurement, management, and the Government Performance and Results Act. For the past four years, she has been working in Atlanta as the chief performance officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where she leads a team of analysts in coordination of CDC's responsibilities under the Government Performance and Results Act. In this role, Roberts has led a substantial redesign of the CDC internal performance management system.
Graphic Facilitator, Collaboration Designer, and Lead for the PIC Collaboration Studio
Stephanie Brown's role on the PIC team is to advance the applied practice of performance improvement strategies. Her services—facilitation, graphic recording, and engagement design—enable people to come together to find patterns in complex problems, decipher confusing information, and envision a clear path forward. Using visual facilitation and design thinking methods, along with her experience hosting World Cafés, Brown helps groups collaborate more effectively.
Capability-Building Manager for the Performance Improvement Council
Bethany Blakey has 20 years of experience in state, local, and federal government. She served as the neighborhood policy coordinator for the mayor of the City of Pittsburgh, overseeing operations and capital projects for the Stadium Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. In addition, she was a presidential management fellow for multiple agencies in the U.S. Department of Justice, and was a co-lead for the vice president's Crime Mapping and Data Driven Management Task Force. Blakey also served as deputy program manager on the design, launch, and implementation of IdeaHub, a federated ideation platform that earned recognition from Harvard University's Ash Center as a top government innovation.
Training Ain't Performance (ATD Book)
Improving Human Performance Certificate (ATD Education Program)
Selecting and Implementing Performance Improvement Solutions Certificate (ATD Education Program)
Analyzing Human Performance Certificate (ATD Education Program)