Based on our interviews with 42 Obama Administration appointees over the past four years, we developed many insights into what makes an effective manager in government. Three key skills to being an effective political executive are:
A key tool in tracking metrics is the use of Dashboards. In our interviews, we saw many political appointees who were effectively using Dashboards as a management tool in running their organization.
One leader who determined the outputs of his organization and then tracked them vigorously was David Kappos, former Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Kappos told us, “We understand our inputs and outputs at USPTO.” A major initiative led by Director Kappos was to examine and reengineer the number of reviews of a patent submission. “We have good numerical data on this,” says Kappos. “We want to reduce the number of reviews on a submission. We want to reduce the rewriting. We were at three reviews and we have gotten it down to between 2.3 to 2.4 reviews per patent submission. The goal would be 2.0. That would be a major reduction.”
After understanding the outputs of the organization, effective managers then focus on getting the metrics right. When the right metrics are selected and are used to determine if the desired outputs are being delivered, they become an effective management tool for agency leadership. In the case of USPTO, there was an obvious metric on which to assess agency performance—the backlog of patent applications pending.
Former Director Kappos set forth the goal of getting the backlog under 700,000 patent applications pending. Kappos felt strongly that citizens really cared about the backlog. Kappos told us, “We set the specific targets. Our goal is to get the backlog under 700,000. We haven’t been under that figure for many years. We are aiming to reach the 325,000 goal by 2015. We couldn’t just give people the goal of 325,000 by 2015. That goal was too far away. So we set 699,000 for FY 2011. Getting under 700,000 would be a major accomplishment.” USPTO reached that goal in June 2011. In September 2013, the backlog of patents pending stood at 584,998. Kappos used the Dashboard to track key agency indictors, including the backlog, which is available to both the agency and the public. A screenshot from the dashboard can be seen below.
In our interviews with USPTO staff, we were told, “The new director brought with him the idea of transparency. He wanted more transparency to stakeholders. The number of ‘patent pendings’ was a big issue for both the agency and our stakeholders. Director Kappos worked with us to create dashboards to allow him to track the reduction in ‘patents pendings’ and make that same information available to our stakeholders.” The Director publicly announced – with great fanfare—when the agency achieved its goal of reducing patents pending to below 700,000.”
In addition to using the patent patency number as a clear goal, the use by USPTO of their dashboards also helped the agency better understand factors contributing to program performance. We were told, “An important part of the effort to reduce (patent) pendency is better understanding the numerous factors that contribute to examination delays and measuring their impact in a way that makes the USPTO more transparent to the public. By looking at the whole picture, we can more effectively develop ways to increase the efficiency of the examination process.”
While the USPTO is an excellent example of an organization that effectively developed metrics and used Dashboards, there are numerous organizations that are not using Dashboard tools. The numerous problems associated with the launch of Health.gov received much publicity during Fall 2013. As is well known, a group of technology wizards were recruited to fix the site. In an Time magazine article, Steven Brill reports, “One of the things that shocked Burt and Park’s team most—‘among many jaw-dropping aspects of what we found,’ as one put it—was that the people running HealthCare.gov had no ‘dashboard,’ no quick way for engineers to measure what was going on at the website, such as how many people were using it, what the response times were for various click-throughs and where traffic was getting tied up. So late into the night of Oct. 18, Burt and others spent about five hours coding and putting up a dashboard.”
The challenges facing USPTO and HealthCare.gov are indicative of the challenges that political appointees face when arriving at their organization:
As seen in our discussion of USPTO, a key component of a performance management system is the development and dissemination of metrics on which to measure organizational performance. An integrated performance management system effectively connects strategy and operations by linking outcomes to processes. A key part of that performance management system is a set of metrics which allows an organization to track outcomes. Many organizations in government have strategic plans and desired outcomes, but they often lack metrics they can use to track performance.
In the FY 2014 budget, the Obama Administration emphasized “managing for results.” The Administration wrote, “To improve the effectiveness and efficiency of Federal agencies, the Administration is implementing goal-focused, data-drive approaches to set priorities, benchmark progress, and ensure staff and resources across the Government are coordinating their efforts for maximum impact.” In the FY 2015 budget, released in March 2014, the Administration emphasized the importance of clear goals and data-driven reviews.
Because of the increased pressure of improving and communicating performance in all sectors, organizations such as USPTO are using integrated performance management systems to effectively run their organization. Components of an integrated performance system include:
Federal agencies have strategic plans and key initiatives. Often missing is the linkage to operational data that enables managers to regularly monitor and improve performance. As seen in the Time magazine critique of HealthCare.gov, agencies are often not tracking operational data and are in danger of missing deadlines and poor performance.
Effective political executives, such as David Kappos, make the connection between their strategic plans and operational data. And they have made it public, thereby addressing the Obama Administration’s requirement for both performance information and transparency.
An integrated performance management system in government includes metrics, metrics that are now increasingly being presented in Dashboards. There are two key, but often missing, steps in implementing an integrated performance management system:
Step One: Determine outcome metrics to be presented in Dashboards as part of the performance management system. The following principles should be used in the selection of metrics:
Step Two: After determining the metrics to be used, develop and follow a performance reporting system. This includes outcome metrics that are regularly updated.
Organizations need to understand their vision/strategy and then identify potential metrics. When implemented properly, this enables management to make key decisions instead of merely identifying problems. Outcome measures, as presented in dashboards, are critical to measuring the success of an organization’s strategy and ability to provide value to stakeholders. Further, reporting performance via Dashboards is essential to supporting continuous improvement and driving desired behaviors in an organization. The experience of David Kappos at USPTO demonstrates the effectiveness of using metrics and a Dashboard to manage performance and make performance information transparent and available both within government and to the public.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has become a major user of dashboards throughout their organization, one example can be seen below. FDA created FDA-TRACK, which is their agency-wide program performance management system that monitors programs through key performance measures and projects. The measures are developed by program offices across FDA and reported on a monthly basis.
Paul Lawrence is a Principal at Ernst & Young's Government & Public Sector practice. He is co-author (with Mark Abramson) of What Government Does: How Political Executives Manage and Paths to Making a Difference: Leading in Government; Mark Abramson is President, Leadership Inc.