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Accentuate the positive: take lead on performance management

There isn’t much love in the Australian public service for the dysfunctional system that currently passes for performance management. In last year’s employee census, only 42% felt their most recent evaluation would help them improve, while 18% said they received no feedback at all in the preceding year.

In the worst cases, performance evaluations are seen as something you do at certain intervals because you have to, and then get back to your real work — a loathsome exercise for both the reviewer and the reviewed. In the best examples, managers regularly and cheerfully talk to staff about what they’re doing well and how they can improve. The latter is the essence of high performance management, and it could finally be coming to the Commonwealth.

At the end of July, a research team put together by the Australian Public Service Commission gave senior executives a new tool to tweak their organisations for high performance. This new diagnostic instrument distils a comprehensive three-year project — itself built on a decade of prior research — and provides a step-by-step guide to putting its findings into action.

The centrepiece is the 2013 report Strengthening the Performance Framework: Towards a High Performing Australian Public Service. According to human resource management professor Michael O’Donnell, who worked on the project, most of the mandarins believed performance management was code for dealing with underperformance.

“We said that was the wrong approach,” O’Donnell told The Mandarin. “If we keep doing that, we’ll just go around in circles. We’ve got to change the conversation. Most people want to come to work to do a good job.”

The report also recognises that such extensive service-wide cultural change will be difficult to achieve in one go. This is where the diagnostic tool comes in. It aims to help agencies and departments make the change incrementally, based on the research team’s finding that:

“The complexity of the environment that APS agencies operate in means that a one-size-fits-all approach to performance management is not appropriate and organisations will need to develop systems that respond to their individual circumstances and challenges.”

Strengthening the Performance Framework sets out the principles for a high-performance framework and says the diagnostic tool will help each organisation “question the extent to which each principle is evident in their specific context”. Further:

“In doing so, it is also important for organisations to identify where effective practices are already evident, to build on these areas of strength, and to identify where gaps exist. Because of differences across organisations, in terms of size, mission, function and levels of performance management maturity, each will have different requirements and varying levels of capacity, as will the groups within them. This means that the prioritisation of the principles is likely to vary across, and possibly within, organisations.”

Lead author Deborah Blackman, a professor of public sector management strategy, says a lot of problems with employees can be avoided by making sure they know what to expect and what is expected of them right from the start. She says probation is generally not done well in the APS and, like O’Donnell, strongly believes the vast majority of staff want to do their best:

“Of course there must be a clear underperformance process because there’s always going to be some underperformers who are in the wrong job — perhaps they’re not suited to it and they just don’t really want to be there — but that’s probably only about 2% of the cases, and we would argue we shouldn’t be managing the entire organisation for that 2%,” she told The Mandarin.

[pullquote] “It emphasises the idea that it is something different to what we’re supposed to do every day, but in fact it is core business.” [/pullquote]

“We need a framework that is more about achieving high performance, otherwise we’re treating everyone as though we’re expecting them to do a bad job, which is patently not the case.”

In March, the Abbott government threw a curveball with its tough new enterprise bargaining framework for the public service, prohibiting “any procedural or descriptive content” about performance management in workplace agreements. Unions fear the new government wants to make it simpler to terminate people who are labelled as underperformers, sometimes unfairly.

The Community and Public Sector Union confirms that recent draft agreements proposed by the Australian Taxation Office and the Department of Human Services have both cut underperformance processes significantly, with the latter reducing the time an employee has to show improvement. If public servants — at all levels — are hearing from the government that it’s time to crack down on underperformance, the new bargaining rules could undermine the shift away from the old negative paradigm.

Blackman doesn’t want to take either side, but suggests having less procedural detail enshrined in enterprise agreements could actually support the change that is needed. “One of the problems of it being in the enterprise bargaining process is it can be seen as something we have to do [by law], so then it becomes about compliance,” she said. “It emphasises the idea that it is something different to what we’re supposed to do every day, but in fact it is core business.”

Performance management starts in the middle

Clearly, a successfully implemented high performance framework will reduce the level of underperformance there is to deal with. But in practice, such a large cultural change will not be easy to achieve. One of the main issues identified in the research was that middle managers in the APS generally lack the skills to have regular, positively framed discussions with staff about their performance. Blackman told The Mandarin that when it comes time for a formal evaluation, there should be no surprises: “If there are, then it’s not being done well.

“One of the problems we have is [public servants] see performance management as something separate to what they do every day. A tick-and-flick process is normally a bad thing, but actually performance reviews should be tick-and-flick, because in the best processes, both the employee and the supervisor have said that it was just a confirmation of what they already knew.”

Public service leaders have known since long before last year’s report that no one-size-fits-all system can encourage employees to be their best across the many different organs of the federal executive. In 2001, a group of mandarins known as the Management Advisory Committee came to the same conclusion in its first report, which sketched out a new strategic framework for performance management in the APS.

Between then and Strengthening the Performance Framework, two APSC publications and four reports from the Australian National Audit Office have all considered the same issues, as did the 2010 blueprint for widespread reform, Ahead of the Game. If the latest APSC report does lead to a functioning high-performance framework, it will have been 15 years in the making.

[pullquote] “How performance management is implemented very much depends on the behaviour and approach of leadership in an organisation.” [/pullquote]

Public sector consultant and executive coach Peter O’Brien chaired the MAC working group that produced the 2001 report, as a senior executive in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. He says the APSC’s latest project contains “a very welcome set of principles” but sees some potential challenges to their swift implementation.

One is the need for a way to effectively manage the performance of staff in areas unique to the public sector where outcomes are not easily quantified; another is an ever-present bogeyman, according to O’Brien: “An increasing culture of risk aversion that tends to hoover up more responsibility into senior levels, [making it] even harder to measure performance in the middle ranks.

“How performance management is implemented very much depends on the behaviour and approach of leadership in an organisation. What [senior executives] model in their own practice of performance management is absolutely critical.”

He says the challenge for SES members is twofold: to realise how much their own management style “will ripple down through the organisation”, and to become familiar with “more supportive, coaching-style leadership” in order to set the right example.

The need for senior staff to lead by example gets the thumbs up from O’Donnell, who believes the APSC project simply will not work without buy-in from the upper ranks.

“Part of what we found was they’re a bit more isolated from people in the middle than they thought,” the professor explained. “There is a lot of separation between those at the top and those in the middle. But if they do act on that, then yes, this will go somewhere.”

More at The Mandarin: Terry Moran: five changes we need in public sector HR

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.