52 – Local government performance appraisal 1/4. What are the issues? (or 5 reasons it doesn’t work)

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                             700 words

performance - rowing

This is the first in a series of four posts on performance appraisal. The central idea is that current performance appraisal systems are not effective.

To begin with, the annual performance appraisal process (sometimes called the performance development plan (PDP) or staff development scheme (SDS)) is often not carried out in local government. When it is, people have usually been compelled to do so or they are simply ‘ticking the boxes’ and being compliant. I have often thought that this is important evidence that the process is not helpful. People ‘vote with their feet’ – if they thought that performance appraisal was useful and that it added value, they would be doing it.

The second problem in local government is that performance plans are seldom developed in accordance with the agreed process. The timing of completion of the Council Plan, adoption of the budget and setting of the CEO’s performance objectives usually means that there is a delay in cascading objectives down through each layer of management to the individuals doing work at the front line. Often it takes 3 months for this to happen and then the performance period is shortened to 9 months. This is when there is something to cascade. There are many roles in local government that have no Council Plan actions or strategies, where the CEO has no personal objectives related to it, and, therefore, there is nothing to cascade down. For example; health inspections of food premises; issuing building permits; cleaning and maintaining infrastructure.

The third problem is the focus on individuals and their performance, not the performance of the system they are working in. We try to measure the contribution of one rower in a team of rowers. This has been discussed at length by Peter R. Scholtes in various publications. A proponent of the work of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Scholtes has numerous criticisms of performance appraisal, including what he calls the ‘systems-related assumptions’, described in The Leaders Handbook:

  • The employee being evaluated has control over the results.
  • The employee’s individual contribution can be discerned from the contributions of the system and other workers in the system.
  • Each system in which an employee works is stable and capable of delivering the expected results.

The fourth problem is the power imbalance between the supervisor conducting the performance appraisal and the employee being appraised. One person is judging the performance of the other. Unfortunately, the performance planning and appraisal systems in local government are designed to control the behaviour of an employee to the satisfaction of their management. I know many human resource professionals will argue with this and say that it is actually intended to be a helpful and constructive process with built-in objectivity. Well, good luck to them. That hasn’t been my experience, particularly at manager level. Again, Scholtes is instructive when he describes other assumptions that are inherent in performance appraisal that are not valid:

  • The evaluation covers performance over the entire performance period, not just the period recallable by memory by the evaluator.
  • All evaluators are consistent with each other.
  • Each evaluator is consistent from one employee to the next.

The fifth problem, particularly in local government, is that the performance appraisal process becomes a barrier to the flexibility required to learn, innovate and improve. Along with the Council Plan and the CEO’s performance objectives, it becomes a key accountability tool. Often the objectives in each person’s plan have been inherited from the plans of others through the cascading process. At best you have an opportunity to negotiate some of the finer details, such as when they will be delivered and how they will be measured. But the objective is not your own. It has not come from your work and the performance you are required to deliver in making your contribution to the performance of the whole organisation. It brings to mind another of the assumptions described by Scholtes:

  • The standards of evaluation are related to factors demonstrably important to the business and its customers.

As surprising as this may sound to some readers, not all Council Plans or CEO objectives would meet this criterion. The things that people delivering services every day know are important to their customers or the community are not always known to senior management or the Council. The Council Plan is the councillor’s plan of action for their period in office, not the plan for the organisation to deliver services. Sometimes they align but it is the exception, not the rule.

In the next post in this series, I will discuss why it is that we persist in the illusion that we are using PDP’s and SDS’s to manage the organisation for performance.

Scholtes, Peter R. 1998. The Leaders Handbook – a guide to inspiring your people and managing the daily workflow.