Chris Wye has been listening to political appointees and career program officials talk about improving the performance of the government for decades. He's heard all the excuses for why things don't change:
"We don't have the data." "It's not my responsibility." "The public sector is different." "The boss isn't interested." And a dozen more explanations for why management theory doesn't translate into better ways of serving the public.
In an effort to link theory and practice, Wye, 60, has gathered a list of common problems from his everyday conversations in "Performance Management: A 'Start Where You Are, Use What You Have' Guide," issued yesterday by the IBM Endowment for the Business of Government.
Wye, who spent most of his career at the Housing and Urban Development Department, is the director of the Center for Improving Government Performance at the National Academy of Public Administration.
He believes in connecting talk about improving government with a positive vision of public service. Too much of the talk, he says, assumes "that things are not what they should be and someone is falling down on the job."
Wye's guide aims to help employees coping with laws such as the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act and the latest management reforms espoused by the White House. He frames issues in the vernacular and offers a mix of common sense and scholarly research.
Too many times, agency officials think they "have it covered" when informed of a tough management issue or emerging trends in managing individual and organizational performance, Wye said.
He says in his report: "In these and future times, it will not be sufficient for managers to be content with existing management systems, no matter how good they may be at any one point in time. . . . With so much thinking and practice available to so many so easily via the Internet and computers, today's manager works under the scrutiny of a thousand eyes."
In the same vein, Wye warns that an agency should not duck performance issues because it lacks adequate data. Instead, it should find the information it needs and act on it.
"When an agency begins to think that it does not have the data, the thought itself gathers momentum and official sanction as it is repeated. In turn, this sometimes stalls progress as everyone throws up their hands and no one steps forward to take responsibility for next steps," Wye says.
Rather than give up, agencies "should mine existing data systems" and find low-cost methods to obtain missing pieces of information, he suggests.
Wye also advises agency officials not to sidestep issues by saying, "Someone else does that," Wye says. Not a smart move, in his view:
"This kind of attitude will get you in trouble in the coming world of performance-based management. It will immediately identify you as an anachronism, if not an obstruction. Yesterday, this kind of statement could have been taken as fact. Tomorrow, it will be seen as an attitude. The solution: change your attitude."
Smart managers, Wye says, "will master the entire process of which they are a part, and develop a reputation among their colleagues for advancing the success of the entire enterprise."
Wye believes that career civil servants want to do a good job and should see their work as a noble calling. He also thinks that political appointees have a place in the system and that it does little good to shrug shoulders and say: "What's the use? Decisions are political."
He recognizes that change, especially driven by a new administration, can be difficult for career employees. But he points out: "Most of us have chosen to be public servants. . . . Discouragement, foot dragging and criticizing appointees demean the concept of public service. They also reveal our inadequacies in coming to grips with reality. It may be hot in the kitchen, but we have chosen the kitchen."
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