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State workers want better job-performance accountability

State workers want better job-performance accountability

February 11th, 2018 by Bob Watson in Local News

Russell Blair exits the Truman Building after work on Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 in Jefferson City. The building houses state offices including the Missouri Department of Revenue and the Office of Administration.

Photo by Collin Krabbe/News Tribune

If you're doing your job, you should be recognized and rewarded. If you're not, you should be held accountable, state employees said in a recent survey of the state's workforce.

Missouri's new chief operating officer said last week a new evaluation system the state has launched will be a valuable tool in achieving that level of accountability.

State employees "want to have clear accountability and rewards and recognitions for those who have superior performance," Chief Operating Officer Drew Erdmann said. "We don't want to have a situation where folks are saying, 'I bust my you-know-what and the person next to me (doesn't), but we're treated the same.' That is corrosive."

The need for more accountability, he said, was "one of the clear messages that came through" in an Organizational Health Index survey of state employees taken last summer by McKinsey & Company, where Erdmann once worked.

The survey results are prompting Erdmann, Gov. Eric Greitens, Commissioner of Administration Sarah Steelman, the directors of all 16 state departments and other Missouri government leaders to focus on a "back to basics" approach to improving government operations, Erdmann said.

"We inherited a very difficult situation, years in the making," he said. "We need to do a better job of making sure people know where they're heading, making sure they understand their role and making sure they're getting the leadership and coaching that they need to develop personally, professionally and deliver on (the state's) mission."

Steelman added: "Making sure they know that they're valuable."


How the survey was conducted

The online survey was conducted from July 19 to Aug. 2, 2017.

Greitens sent several emails to state employees last year, urging them to answer the survey's questions, explaining in a July 19 message: "Any team can be stronger, and a team gets stronger when every team member's voice is heard. That's why I'm asking you to complete a survey that will give us the facts about how things are working in our government."

Overall, 75 percent of the 47,427 state employees surveyed provided answers.

There was no charge to the state, officials said, because Missouri's participation was part of a larger research project.

Because McKinsey & Company has proprietary rights to the questions it asks in these kinds of surveys, the specific questions and the state employees' answers were not available for reporters to see or review.


'Years of neglect'

"What this (survey) allowed us to do is get beyond questions of, 'Am I happy or not?' It doesn't ask those questions," Erdmann said during a meeting last week with reporters from the News Tribune, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Springfield News-Leader. "It asks the questions of, 'How are we getting work done?'

"And it allows us to understand, for example, do we communicate clear, strategic direction? Do we have clear milestones and goals? Do we have review processes that recognize people for superior performance but (also) identify those who need coaching and additional help for their professional development?"

The answers across all departments are generally that things could be much better than they are.

McKinsey & Company has developed a "global benchmark" based on answers it gets from similar surveys around the world, and reported Missouri's overall score is in the fourth quartile — or bottom 25 percent — of that benchmark.

Erdmann said four Missouri government departments — Agriculture, Conservation, Elementary and Secondary Education, and Higher Education — placed in the second quartile.

Three other departments — Economic Development; Insurance, Financial Institutions and Professional Registration; and Natural Resources — were in the third quartile, while the rest of Missouri government was in the fourth quartile.

The goal, Erdmann said, is having "a highly skilled and motivated workforce after years of management neglect."

The survey produced a snapshot of the state workforce, he said, so officials can't determine what caused those "years of neglect" or what role normal political turnover might have played.

"The vast majority of our people have said — and we believe and can see it — (they) come to work every day, trying to do a good job," Erdmann noted. "If you give them a better sense of direction, explain how they fit in and contribute to that mission — and you also give them regular coaching on how they can improve — that is a much better place."


Evaluating the workforce

Since at least 1945, much of Missouri's government has operated with the "merit system" as created by the State Personnel Law.

The law (Chapter 36) says: "A system of personnel administration based on merit principles is established for all offices, positions and employees" — except those departments not listed in the statute, including Agriculture; Conservation; Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE); Higher Education; Insurance, Financial Institutions and Professional Registration; Revenue; and Transportation.

The system is "designed to protect employee's from arbitrary actions, personal favoritism, and political coercion," the Office of Administration explains on its website.

"The Missouri Merit System provides a competitive examination process for recruitment and retention of a qualified workforce and governs the appointment, promotion, transfer, layoff, removal and discipline of employees."

Opponents over the years have complained the system prevents managers from getting rid of poor-performing employees.

During his Jan. 10 State of the State address, Greitens told lawmakers the state needs to change "workforce laws that are decades old. Today, government can't move people to where they will help the most, can't reward people for good work, and unlike a business, it can't get rid of poor performers who fail our citizens and fail their colleagues."

When he released his proposed budget Jan. 22, Greitens said possible state employee pay raises would be tied to "civil service reform."

But so far, the Greitens administration hasn't issued its proposed reform plan.

"I'd say, 'Stay tuned,'" Erdmann said Thursday. "There are folks in the General Assembly who we've been in active conversations (with) across the board. We've had really good, productive conversations with them, going back months, (and) we're going to continue to do so. So we don't want to get ahead of the legislative process."


A new approach

The state already has changed the way it evaluates personnel.

"The old system, called 'Perform,' was used in some form by 13 out of the 16 departments," Erdmann said. "It has been abolished. It is done. It is dead."

He described it as a "heavy, cumbersome, IT — enter data into a system and get a score" process that required an estimated 170,000 hours or more "just mechanically executing it. That's the equivalent of 85" full-time employees.

And there was widespread dissatisfaction with it, Erdmann said.

The state's new tool is "Engage."

"The new approach is based upon what we've heard from the workforce," he said, "but also best practice in any organization — which is you have regular, structured, professional development conversations between a team leader and team members."

That mutual, two-way conversation is intended to help employees "get better in their own skills, but also as a team, and also to achieve their objectives to serve the citizens better," Erdmann said. "That is a big change."

Steelman said: "This is an opportunity to really change the way we do business — and be more responsive to the citizens."

Supervisors also will be evaluated regularly under the new program, Erdmann said, including "how well they develop their teams."


'Widespread dissatisfaction'

"The larger organizations, with dispersed workforces" around the state, like the departments of Transportation, Corrections, Social Services and Mental Health, Erdmann explained, "can be a different challenge of how do you implement things. You have to have clearer communications.

"You have to work on, 'How do I get the message out to those critical managers in the field that I may not be able to see and walk by their office every day?'"

But, he cautioned, "This is not a scorecard. What's striking is the patterns that are consistent across all departments there's widespread dissatisfaction."

McKinsey and Company started in Chicago in 1926 and now is a global management consulting firm with offices in more than 120 cities and across 60 countries.

On its website, the firm says it "serves a broad mix of private, public and social sector institutions," helping "clients make significant and lasting improvements to their performance and realize their most important goals."