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The Rights and Performance Culture Clash – Part Three with Martha Johnson

“At GSA I encountered an insidious war between the Rights government and the Performance government.” – Martha Johnson.

Back in the 1800s the US passed legislation that created the civil service. The objective of the legislation was change the civil service from a rewards system where you got your job just if you voted for someone to a life-long pursuit.

The civil service was meant to be a group of people that were performing for the country and because that could put them into all sorts of political crosshairs they were afforded some protections. To this day the civil services retains some of those protections.

However, in part three of our interview with former GSA Administrator Martha Johnson we learned how the culture of rights in government it butting up against the new trend of performance.

Johnson told Chris Dorobek that the two different cultures make it very difficult for leaders to effectively govern.

“The rights culture is about the civil service system and the due process that is accorded to every civil servant, they can not be working under the idea that they can be booted because they are working on certain things or doing certain work. It is sort of like tenure system where they are trying to protect academic freedom,” said Johnson.

The rise of the performance culture.

“Then comes the last half of the 20th century when American industry suddenly hit the wall because it was not performing the way the rest of the world was beginning to perform. Goods from Japan and Germany were beginning to flood our markets. We took on the task of becoming a much more high performing nation. Our businesses entered into high performance work. I was lucky to be apart of that whole performance revolution. Government needed to catch up. It needed to find ways it was going to insert higher performance standard into government. It started with the CFO Act in the 1980s and then it moved on to a number of different legislations that dictated a lot about how you do strategic planning and financial management, IT management, procurement management. So, there was a legislative push to get government into higher performance,” said Johnson.

What makes a performance culture?

“The performance notion is often about time and response.

  • How well do I serve my customer now or get my program done now or get it within budget now?
  • There is a real time expedient to it. In the rights culture there is not the same sense of time, it is about due process.
  • So if someone runs into a problem and feels they have been unjustly dealt with, the civil service and they appeal it there is time to sort that out. If you are not performing there is not the same time afforded to you if you make a mistake or want to make a change.
  • You are supposed to be performing in a very immediate sense.

The clash of timing is a huge one. So in the GSA conference scandal example we had a lot of people caught up in the responsibility for this conference. The rights culture says they get a certain amount of time before they can fire, terminate or discipline them. But in a performance culture we would have moved much more quickly. Now the media and external stakeholders are not interested in waiting and due-process, they wanted immediate response especially in an election year,” said Johnson.

Is government a 20th century model trying to keep pace in a 21st century world?

“I think there are some really big, fundamental structures around how our government works and I am not talking about the three parts of government – I am talking about internal executive branch – how a huge bureaucracy functions and yes, we are working with rules that were set up eons ago. Other things have now been piled onto them. We need to find a way to be more elastic, so that we are holding to some of those original values and adding in some of the imperatives around speed and performance,” said Johnson.

You have to do a lot in most cases to get fired from the federal government?

“My current thinking about it, is that as industry has had to make a huge shift in the last 50 years into this performance mentality and there is a lot we can learn from it. It doesn’t mean that we have to bring industry into government or bring it in at the exclusion of some of the other aspects of government,” said Johnson.

Should there be less oversight or more?

“Before say the 1960s we were making a lot of our products in the US willy nilly. We were inspecting to be sure they got out of the factory properly. We had to learn in the 1970s to get rid of that inspection layer because it was terribly costly and things weren’t done well because they figured the inspectors would find it so they just kept shoving things down the assembly lines. The notion was you push off the problem and someone will catch it later,” said Johnson.

  • We have that same problem now in government where we are into hyper oversight. We are paying a huge amount for that oversight and it isn’t allowing us to build into the organizations themselves into the way we need to.
  • think we have to put on a whole new set of ideals on how and what we are approaching how we perform in government.

Why does transparency matter in a leadership sense?

“Transparency is something that leaders have not been too keen about in the past. My initial ideas on transparency are that we have been holding information, ideas and knowledge away from people, and if we were to share it we would have more access to problem solving. So I am focused right now on the arbitrary transparency issues. It is just silly that information is in a chain of command, when some experts and consumers are missing from that chain. Or other resources can’t be brought to it, because nobody knows about it because it is in the chain of command. So as we flatten our organizations, our knowledge is flattening,” said Johnson.

Transparency can fill in the gaps?

“We are in this situation where people are only seeing parts of the whole, they need to see more to understand it. So transparency is important to fill out the pixels,” said Johnson.

Does transparency help with silos?

“Government is terribly stove piped. There is a lot of inefficiency with holding everything in your stove pipe. That is sort of on the prevent waste but then there is the side that you don’t even know what potential you are losing because you aren’t connecting with everyone else. It is certainly messy. But we are getting better and better tools to amass this information,” said Johnson.

What happens to privacy with all this transparency?

“Obviously privacy is still very important so that employees feel as if they are safe when they work. So they feel they are not exposed at every turn. I don’t think transparency should be taken as this blanket in which we are going to open everything and have little cameras on every corner of every desk but I do think we need to go a lot further in opening up and sharing. So it is about collaboration and working away from this stovepipe rigidity,” said Johnson.

Transparency can be uncomfortable at times?

“Leaders need to be able to be vulnerable. They need to be out there a little bit. As Dave Barram, my mentor and the former administrator, always said, “The great man theory is dead,” there is no one man that holds all the answers. You can’t think of leaders as people without warts. It is hard for leaders to say that. It is an ego thing and a pride thing. When you are sitting in the office you are thinking, I am here because they are expecting me to have all the answers. I need to at least put up a good show. But we do need to be more open and say, “Oh, I need to learn more about that.” So transparency isn’t a threat to us in the same way,” said Johnson.

What is the “Don’t tell the leader code?”

I was in a large organization as a newbie manager back in the 1980s. I was taught very early on that my loyalty was to my fellow managers and our staff and we needed to be very careful about what we sent up the ladder, because if you sent it up the ladder you would lose control of it. So it was a don’t tell the leader code. Every organization has them. It wasn’t something that was unique to us. It was something I wasn’t naive about when I was in the administrator’s office at GSA. There is a lot they don’t bring to you and some of it is for legitimate reasons but there is also a sense of pride on the part of the managers that they don’t want to be elevating their problems. It is also they don’t need to the top tier to zero in on their issues and controlling the problem,” said Johnson.

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