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Engaging Program Managers in Performance Management

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Recently ICMA asked me to contribute to a new e-book, 17 on 2017, offering my predictions about performance management in the coming year and tips for local government managers. 

One of my primary predictions, which you may have heard before, is that local governments that will prove to be most successful in their performance management efforts will have moved their emphasis downward within the organization. 

Sure, plenty of cities and counties will continue to focus on dashboards and performance reports geared toward the governing body, citizens, and upper management. These are important tools of accountability and they should continue. But most data-driven operating improvements and service enhancements, when they happen at all, occur within the departments and programs, at the operating level. Only when performance information is used not only for accountability but also for performance improvement at the program level will its full value be realized. 

Here are some suggestions for how to move your performance management initiatives in that direction: 

  • Resolve to use performance measures as a guide to improvement, not only as a way to demonstrate accountability.
  • Ensure that program managers and workers are clear about performance goals—both strategic and program goals. They must be sure about what they are trying to accomplish.
  • Resist the temptation to measure what is easiest; ensure that measures are relevant, actionable, and useful for management, not just for reporting.
  • Select capable department heads and program managers, and grant them important decision making authority, giving them greater discretion, if possible, in matters of budget, equipment, and human resources.
  • Make performance strategy sessions part of the management routine. The CitiStat model engages program managers in data-driven reviews with top executives, but some local governments have found benefits in a similar process based at lower levels of the organization and involving mostly employees from the department or program itself. The common denominator is a conscientious review of performance statistics to determine whether performance is truly satisfactory and, if not, what changes might yield better results. Just measuring and reporting is insufficient.
  • Provide management oversight. Be sure that employees know that good performance is a key value of the organization. Be sure also that subordinate managers know that data-driven recommendations and data-driven decisions are important to you. Read departmental performance reports (at least scan them) and let everyone know that you spend time doing so. Let them know by commenting favorably about strong performance and by asking department managers about plans for addressing instances of weak performance. You do not have to make operating decisions for program managers (in fact, you should not do so, except in rare cases); just be sure that they understand that you expect them not only to know where performance needs to be improved but also to develop and carry out plans to make those improvements

In short, as a chief administrative officer, it is important to demonstrate that performance management is a personal priority by emphasizing the importance of good performance, highlighting examples of strong performance and successful data-driven decision making, taking time to review performance information regularly, and providing feedback. 

Studies have shown that when performance management actually occurs—that is, when performance information leads to operating changes or service improvements—it usually happens at the initiative of department or program employees rather than from action at the top of the organization. The best chance for this kind of success, then, lies with efforts directed lower in the organization. Many of the suggestions above are fleshed out in my article Getting Real about Performance Management in the December 2015 issue of ICMA’s PM magazine.


Thomas Miller

Guidance from Dave Ammons is always worth taking!

Ian Lucas
Ian Lucas said

Getting real performance data, without being regarded as intrusive, is a difficult but vital step. Getting comparative data across departments is even more challenging. "Lower level" Staff buy-in requires the most effort and has the biggest "payoff" in terms of service improvements. It's a labor of love for all of us.

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