Who's coming up with the best new ideas for managing people's performance on the job? Surprisingly, some of the most innovative work in developing new approaches to performance management is being done these days by organizations in the public sector. When executives look for breakthrough thinking and best practices, their best sources frequently turn out to be state agencies and city governments, federal bureaucracies, and your local pardons and parole boards.
Like most management experts, I used to accept the conventional wisdom: public sector agencies and their managers are really second-class citizens when it comes to innovation and trailblazing. I assumed, like everybody else, that new ideas always originate in the private sector and then, slowly and with great resistance, filter down to state agencies and local governments.
I was wrong. Managers in the public sector are not innovation's stepchildren. Genuinely exciting performance management initiatives -- bold, ingenious and utterly practical -- are emerging from this often-overlooked sector.
I discovered the exciting work that government agencies are doing in performance management a couple years ago when I wrote the books, Discipline Without Punishment and The Complete Guide to Performance Appraisal. My research demonstrated that many of the innovations I was trumpeting were in fact developed in the public sector.
My awareness that public sector is leading the pack in performance management innovation was confirmed about a year ago, when I signed on as subject-matter expert for the national benchmarking study on best practices in performance appraisal sponsored by the American Productivity and Quality Center, DDI, and Linkage, Inc. My first task was to identify the companies that are doing really innovative stuff in performance management. But many of these companies turned out not to be "companies." Many of them were government agencies, and two of them -- the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Minnesota Department of Transportation -- made the final cut as best practice models.
Just What is "Performance Management"?
Performance management is the handy umbrella term for all of the organizational activities involved in managing people on the job. Performance appraisal, of course, is the one we think of first, and people often use the terms "performance management" and "performance appraisal" interchangeably.
But other activities also find room under the performance management umbrella -- discipline systems, for example. In addition to creating some novel approaches to assessing and evaluating just how well Charlie and Jane are doing their jobs -- performance appraisal, obviously -- government agencies at all levels are reacting in entirely new ways when Charlie and Jane drop the ball and create problems on the job. Discipline procedures are another type of performance management system.
And what happens when it's management that drops the ball? Charlie's upset because he feels he shouldn't have been assigned to work overtime; Jane's indignant over what she sees as an undeserved written warning. Grievance procedures too are performance management devices.
In each of these areas, government agencies at all levels are developing and installing performance management procedures and systems that can appear revolutionary to anyone who's locked into old ways of managing people.
So What's New in Performance Appraisal?
Historically, performance appraisal has been seen as merely an event -- the painful annual exercise where the manager rates the performance of her subordinates over the past 12 months. Operating independently, the performance appraisal system was rarely linked directly to the stated mission of the organization or to any other programs and processes designed to maximize human efforts and intellectual capital.
Independence has now been replaced by integration. …