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A New Year’s Lesson In Progress: PerformanceStat and Government Agency Improvement

It’s been two weeks since the kick-start to New Year’s resolutions, and hopefully everyone’s still in the mindset of self-improvement. But you and I aren’t the only ones who set improvement goals for ourselves.

Christopher Dorobek, host of the podcast DorobekINSIDER, spoke with Bob Behn, Senior Lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and author of the book The PerformanceStat Potential: A Leadership Strategy for Producing Results on how to use data to achieve improvement in government agencies. Behn’s insight on what he calls ‘PerformanceStat’ suggests that in making the first steps towards self-improvement, improvement strategies should look something like New Year’s resolutions.

A good New Year’s resolution is well defined. Rather than picking a vague goal like, “I want to get in shape,” we make statements like “I want to exercise three times a week.” Likewise, it’s absolutely critical for a government agency to clearly define its purpose. According to Behn, “If you don’t have a purpose, you can’t do anything else.”

Behn stresses that a government agency should seek to improve by making sure that it has communicated its concrete goals to all employees, and that everyone is on board. Behn says: “The major mistake they make is not making it part of the rhyme and rhythm of the organization – it has to become a focus for the organization.”

When you make a New Years’ resolution, it’s always a good idea to write down, for instance, how many times you went to the gym per week, to track your progress and evaluate how successful you’ve been so far. Like a good resolution, Behn tells us it’s a good idea for the agency to step back and take stock of whether their desired improvement is being achieved. Collecting data is an essential part of this process.

The tricky part, though, is determining the data points that should be collected. Some agencies, such as the police force, have data collection built into their organization, through established statistics such as crime rates. Not all agencies, however, have that already established, and they must clearly define what numbers they need to evaluate their improvements.

New Year’s resolutions unfortunately have a tendency to fizzle out far before the end of the year. How can government agencies truly push themselves to actually achieve their goals? Behn leaves his readers and podcast listeners with a couple of takeaway tips for fixing and improving agencies.

The organization needs to know the purpose of its goals. Believe it or not, some organizations don’t know concretely how they want to improve. Leaders must conclusively decide how they’re looking to change – and communicate it to the whole agency, so everyone knows that this is where they’re looking to get as a team. As Behn puts it, everyone must “commit to a purpose.”

The decision-making process around performance statistics is a time-consuming endeavor, and it falls in the hands of the already-busy leadership. According to Behn, “People always want to know, how much does it cost financially, which is not very much. How much does it cost in terms of leadership time? The answer to that question is a lot.” Working on ways to improve agencies through data-driven analysis and goal setting should be woven into leaders’ jobs – not relegated to the side for their free moments.

It’s important to identify the ‘positive deviants’ – individuals who defy organizational conventions in a successful, innovative way. Promote them. Promote the individuals who help the organization achieve its desired results. Through capitalizing upon your strongest workers, you’ll encourage their behavior and foster more improvements.

So, when agencies need to make improvements, if they stick to PerformanceStat data, and remember the lessons learned from failed New Year’s resolutions, they’re perhaps more likely to succeed in evolving towards positive, fundamental change.

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