Reward and Recognition in the Public Service – A System In Need of Reform

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Dan Pink gives a good TED talk on the subject of incentives that I’d like to share as an opening to this post. He believes that “carrot/stick” incentive models are not appropriate for the knowledge worker who does not perform mechanical tasks or “inside the box” tasks. During the talk, he gives evidence that financial incentives produce narrow thinking which is not appropriate for a workplace of knowledge workers. For the knowledge worker, motivation is found through freedom, autonomy and purpose. This take on motivation is in line with the generally accepted view of employee motivation and forms the basis for my argument that the performance measurement system in the public service is not working.

Before explaining why the system is broken, I will explain the system itself. Annually, public servants enter what is known as the Performance Discussion Process (PDP) and a learning plan exercise where they are evaluated on their performance against defined objectives that are based on their job description and overall learning goals. In a collaborative process between manager and employee, a performance evaluation is conducted, agreed upon and then entered into the employees staffing file. This process is meant to provide feedback on the employees performance in a structured and helpful way.

So why is the current system broken? The PDP itself is largely meaningless for a public servant. While it has nobel intentions and is a very important part of overall employee performance measurement, the PDP itself is often filed away until it is time to enter the process again next year. Managers are unable to take definitive and concrete action based on the results of the PDP. There are no bonuses, no rewards, no major penalties or consequences for a PDP being positive or negative. If the employee feels uncomfortable with the work environment due to a poor PDP, they can simply accept a deployment or assignment elsewhere in the public service and their negative/positive PDP does not factor into the assessment of the candidate for the new position.

Employee motivation through incentives and rewards does not have to be costly. In times of austerity, it is difficult to garner support for bonuses or any other monetary compensation to public servants for excellent performance. Even if times were not tight, monetary bonuses and incentives are not as motivating as one may think. Employees are often motivated by non-monetary factors such as meaningful work, ongoing support in their work and the sense/feeling of making progress in their jobs.

What is the manager of the new bureaucrat to do? I encourage managers to enter into a more frequent PDP process which includes a 360 degree feedback loop. As part of the more frequent PDP process, the manager should measure the public servant against their objectives quarterly at a minimum and more frequently if possible. Identify road blocks, challenges and other obstacles impeding the work of the public servant and offer support, guidance and solutions to overcome these challenges. Ensure that the employee is provided the support they need to complete their job successfully and demonstrate to the employee just how much they have achieved and accomplished. If a public servant is performing exceptionally well, then reward the public servant with meaningful work/projects and allow them to work beyond their job description in areas that are of professional interest. If that is not possible, then offer opportunities to work on projects of a personal interest that offer a positive benefit to the organization. By providing an opportunity to do work that is of personal or professional nature and beneficial to the organization, you not only motivate the employee but you create a better working environment and allow time to projects that will benefit everyone.

Public servants are dedicated employees and a poor incentive/reward system does not mean all public servants become lazy over time or perform poorly. However, as seen in the private sector, a properly built and managed incentive and reward system is a strong contributor to performance resulting in increased productivity. A public servant performing at 110% is compensated and rewarded at the same level as a public servant performing at 70%. We need a system that rewards high performers and punishes poor performers that is based on non-monetary rewards. There has to be a clear distinction in outcomes for performing exceptionally well and performing poorly.

Scott McNaughton, thenewbureaucracy.ca

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