The Performance Lie We Tell Ourselves: “Doing More With Less”
Of all the phrases that have worked their way into “management-speak”, particularly in government, the one that has caused the most lasting damage just might be “Doing More with Less.”
Of all the phrases that have worked their way into “management-speak”, particularly in government, the one that has caused the most lasting damage just might be “Doing More with Less.” The overly simplified message implies that we can squeeze and keep squeezing unproductive people and processes into continued increases in productivity, productivity so amazing that it will overcome a reduction in resources and lead to a greater and greater results for all of us. Just thinking thorough this equation quickly points out it as a dangerous fallacy, playing into a misconception that most government agencies are both very wasteful and can provide increasingly expensive services for less and less money.
While it’s true that efficiencies can be realized for short term increases, these process improvements are quickly exhausted. Meanwhile data from The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey indicate that unproductive people are not being squeezed, with only 51% indicating a performance oriented culture, instead fewer people are doing more and more of the work. But perhaps the biggest issue is not the phrase itself, but the unrealistic and continually improving performance targets we set to impress our bosses, Congress, and the public. Raising targets while budgets shrink has not proven to Congress and others that we deserve more resources, instead it has magnified feelings that resources can and should be continually cut back, with no pain. Only when tragedy strikes at a place like the Department of Veteran’s Affairs does the general public begin to hear about the true danger of pairing increasingly high performance targets with inadequate resources. Raising the expectation of high performance in the face of austerity flies in the face of logic and common sense, its time to send the truthful message that the American public should expect performance decreases in some areas as resources are reduced.
For a more nuanced and realistic message, I recommend the speech by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, which while titled “The New Normal: Doing More with Less” argues for prioritized decrease in some services, like school bus routes, textbooks, and maintenance. Even some of these areas will only bring short term savings and some may eventually lead to higher costs in the future, as in the case for maintenance. Failure to play it straight with performance measures and target setting is a damaging myth that says resources don’t matter. This huge lie we are telling on performance and resources is dishonest at best, and as we’ve seen at the VA, potentially tragic.
Written by Jon Desenberg, The Performance Institute.