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Pushing the Boundaries of Performance

Posted Jul 27, 2016

By Kate Josephs, former Executive Director of the Performance Improvement Council


After 2½ fascinating and inspiring years, my time as Executive Director of the Performance Improvement Council (PIC) is nearly over.  I’ve learned so much from this experience, from our fabulous PIC team – Boris Arratia, Bethany Blakey, Stephanie Brown, Amin Mehr, Dana Roberts, Lauren Stocker and Stephanie Teller – as well as from colleagues in OMB and in the Federal Performance community.

As I prepare to return to the UK Government I’ve been reflecting on some of the biggest lessons I personally and we as a team at the PIC have learned in the last couple of years, as well as some of the opportunities we have coming up. 

Three Lessons: 

1.The way we talk and think about performance is changing for the better

There was a time, not too long ago, when the phrase ‘what gets measured, gets done’ was practically a mantra.  Performance management was seen as primarily about accountability and hard incentives, while improvement and learning was an afterthought.  One of the great things about the Performance framework in the US Federal Government – as independent studies have shown[1] - is that the law and the guidance incentivize the adoption of proven practices and routines, and allow flexibility for Agencies to reflect their diverse contexts and missions. 

A strong emphasis on ensuring the framework is ‘used and useful’ is reinforced by OMB leadership and a number of passionate leaders in the PIO community, as well as by our wonderful Performance Liaison Team in the PIC – Dana, Lauren and Stephanie T. 

But what does it actually mean to go beyond the limited idea that performance is just about measurement? What does it look like to aim for more than compliance, really demonstrate value and build performance capability?  These questions led the PIC team to develop the ‘Performance Practices and Principles’ construct – or ‘P3’ - which you can see summarized in the P3 Playbook and in the graphic below.  The idea here was to use our experience working with diverse Federal agencies to clarify how we talk about what it takes to not only achieve mission results, but actively manage ambitious and complex goals.  We went back into our archives of interviews, summits and working groups to reflect what we’ve repeatedly heard from professionals who have given their careers to understanding, improving and driving their agency’s performance. 

We are using P3 in a number of ways, most excitingly we have found it can be the start point for a really productive conversation with Program leaders, like the members of the Leaders Delivery Network. The LDN is a network of senior career staff charged with implementing Agency Priority Goals, established by the PIC in October 2015; while LDN members may not all be ‘performance geeks’ like us, they certainly want access to tools, ideas and insights from peers seeking to drive improvement and from the PIC.

Going forward we will build out the P3 playbook, with an online library of case studies, stories and useful learning resources that speak to the needs of program managers and their teams.  And P3 creates a shared language as we – and PIO teams in agencies – seek to connect with program folks and make sure performance practices are used; principles of performance culture are championed; and the legal framework is implemented in a way that helps to improve performance, not just measure it.

2.Cross-Agency implementation is not easy but ‘the juice is worth the squeeze’!

The Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) Goals are close to my heart! They are where I started when I came to the PIC and exist to tackle a problem common to many Governments across the world – how should we set ourselves up to solve increasingly complex ‘horizontal’ problems, when Government is largely structured in ‘vertical’ organizational siloes.  

The last 2½ years establishing the first full set of CAP Goals have been – intentionally – a learning experience, and the PIC team has played a key role in CAP Goal implementation.  For example, we have supported OMB leadership to stand up regular problem solving ‘deep dives’ that ensure consistent and sustained attention both on successes and challenges.  We also partnered with OMB to make the case for and support the establishment of the White House Leadership Development Program, which elevates the importance of enterprise leadership and performance capabilities when it comes to delivering cross-agency goals.  

And we have worked with many of the CAP Goal teams; offering assistance on the day to day challenges that come up in the uncharted territory of the cross-agency world, and partnering through the PIC’s Collaboration Studio in more intense engagements.  This work has made a difference, as one CAP goal leader reflected: “The team at the PIC has provided invaluable training, technical assistance, and direction for our CAP goal in STEM education.  They have the great knack of pushing just hard enough to keep us making positive improvements, and at the same time they are skilled in helping to guide a large group with diverse goals and agency contexts, and meet us where we are.  We would not be making the great progress we are making on the goal without their leadership.[2]” GAO have also recognized the progress made and the team is working hard to ensure lessons learned can be reflected in the guidance, support and onboarding we give to teams charged with delivering the top Cross-cutting priorities of the next Administration.

3.Never underestimate the power of convening

Like many colleagues in the Office of Executive Councils, there are times on the PIC team when it can feel as though we spend our lives organizing meetings! Thankfully these are rarely dull, run-of-the-mill gatherings, due in large part to the expertise of talented PIC team members, and the leadership of Stephanie B and Boris in the Collaboration Studio – which we established last year.  The PIC occupies a unique space, we don’t have an underlying agenda (other than to help improve performance) and we have the power to bring together diverse groups from across the Federal Government and within the Executive Office of the President (EOP) to solve problems and create opportunities to improve.  

We approach our work with humility - we can never know more about the specifics of an issue than the program teams working on them every day.  But we do have useful skills - in facilitation; human-centered design; graphic facilitation; continuous process improvement; Agile methodologies and more – that can make a huge difference in moving a difficult conversation forward.  We also have insights and experience, gleaned from our work with many Agencies and on many goals, that can help unblock obstacles.  Insights as simple as the knowledge that the most important question to ask when setting a performance metric is ‘what is the outcome you are trying to achieve?’   Experience that tells us if there is not clear agreement on that ‘question zero’ teams will struggle ever to get to meaningful metrics.  As a strategic partner, the small PIC team can ‘punch above its weight’, working hand-in-hand with CAP and other Priority Goal teams, as well as with PIOs and their teams to help them make progress. 

Looking ahead – Harnessing the potential of…

There are three areas where I feel genuinely excited but maybe a little more uncertain of the future, I know the team is going to continue working on these areas and I will be watching with bated breath from across the Atlantic to see how it all pans out!


The creation of the P3 construct certainly forced me to reflect on what it actually means to communicate performance effectively, not just for the purposes of getting the ‘good stories out there’ but thinking about storytelling techniques as a tool in our performance toolkit.   Brain science tells us that the human brain is riveted to information with high emotional content, yet how many of us in the performance space spend much time thinking about how to construct a compelling narrative around the data we are collecting, analyzing and measuring? 

Of course decisions should not be driven by anecdote; we are seeking a balance here – as with all the performance practices.  Nonetheless over the last year the PIC team, inspired by the innovative ideas of our longest standing PIC team member, Bethany, has embraced the idea that ‘telling a story with data’ should be part and parcel of performance practice.  We kicked off this work with a Summit in March of 2015 attended by around 400 federal employees, in person and online, and have since honed and developed workshops and trainings that have been delivered to teams in the Department of Commerce and participants in our Performance Ambassadors Program.  To me our investment in building this capability is a great example of how the PIC can push the boundaries of the way we view performance in the Federal space, and it is heartening to see many performance teams leading the charge in their own Departments as well.


The challenges inherent in collecting, sharing, verifying, analyzing and visualizing complex performance data are not trivial.  A huge part of the effort that goes into performance in the Federal Government is in this space and PIO teams are at the forefront.  To ensure we can support them in this effort, in the last six months the PIC team has both recruited a new Digital Director, Amin, and partnered with the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIFs) to explore how we can use technology to help address some of these common challenges. In particular exploring how we might further leverage one of our key assets – – building on version 1.0 and envisioning a more transactional site that can engage its many different audiences, including within Federal Government, in value-adding ways.  For example, the PIF team’s user discovery work has led them to focus on prototyping a product that could put real-time performance data into the hands of Federal managers in customizable and user-friendly ways. This work is in early stages but I’m excited about the opportunity to marry the energy and innovation in the digital space with performance work in Government.


Arriving in the Federal Government from the UK was a shock on many levels, not least getting my head round the sheer scale of the Federal workforce and the attenuated nature of the delivery systems and partnerships we rely upon to ensure impact.  In that context the list of potential strategic connections that we can make from a performance standpoint is almost endless… but a few seem to me to have even greater potential.  The Performance and human capital connection is one, in the last year the PIC has worked with the Department of Labor and Energy to pilot the ‘Modern Government Management Traits’ program, which is inspired by Google’s ‘Project Oxygen’ and customized for Federal Managers.  The White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team are working with us to evaluate the impact of the pilot, which has been delivered to over 300 managers who supervise around 1600 Federal staff, and will conclude at the end of August.  Of course we need to see the data, but the premise here is that strong management and performance improvement go hand in hand.  Similarly we have sought to build increasingly strong bonds at the center of Government between the performance agenda and evidence & evaluation agendas, emphasizing our shared commitment to improving outcomes and using data and evidence to drive decision-making and an outcomes mindset.


For public servants the world over, transitions of Government are unquestionably times of uncertainty, but they are also times of great opportunity.  In the performance space I think we are ready to ‘lean in’ to that opportunity.  We have a legal and policy framework that strikes a balance between incentivizing proven routines and practices and creating flexibilities to recognize diverse realities in different Federal Agencies.  We have a community of performance leaders in agencies and EOP championing the active use of performance practices and working to cultivate performance culture.  And increasingly we ‘performance professionals’ are working to convene and connect with program leaders and managers who are the people that can make the biggest difference to the performance of Federal programs. There are moments to seize – next year, thanks to GPRA(MA), will be the first time in the history of Federal Government that all Agencies will complete Strategic Plans at the same time – and there are stories to tell – of real-world results in many different agency contexts, of Federal program teams working hard to make a difference, of government improving, innovating and collaborating more and more and every day. 

A colleague tweeted recently, ‘Public service is one massive relay race, once you understand that, you feel much more at peace with your work’.  I am honored to have taken the baton for a short while and to have had the opportunity to serve in the US Federal Government, keep in touch!



[11]Performance Management Routines That Work? An Early Assessment of the GPRA Modernization Act – D. Moynihan & A. Kroll, Public Administration Review, Vol. 76 Issue 2, March/April 2016

[2]Joan Ferrini-Mundy, Assistant Director at National Science Foundation and STEM education CAP Goal leader