President Barack Obama’s choice for the newly created post of “chief performance officer,” Nancy Killefer, withdrew her name from consideration. That raises some questions, but I’ve been thinking more about that the job even exists.

Chief Performance Officer.

I figure it means – person in charge of making sure things get done – or else. Whoever takes on this role will scrutinize the federal budget in order to eliminate what’s not needed or doesn’t work and improve the things that do work. The new position is supposed to indicate a focus on responsibility, accountability and transparency of government. Yes, we have all heard that before but I’m glad we keep trying; it isn’t easy and it is a job that is never done.

There are a lot of perspectives, often conflicting, about what “doesn’t work” looks like and how to fix it. What’s working for me, may not be working for you – and even if we agree something isn’t working – we may have different ideas about why and what to do about it. Take all those differences in perspectives, multiply them by the  programs, projects, policies, processes and everything else the government invests in and well, you’re looking at a really, really big job on which the leader is going to get a lot “feedback.”

To some extent anyone in a leadership position is expected to figure out what isn’t needed and doesn’t work (not to mention identifying what is needed and does work). Goodness knows I don’t have the answer – but I do know about something that can help: evaluation.

I’m not talking about the kind of perfunctory act that takes place after something is done and is often completed as quickly as possible. And, I’m not talking about that thing that so-and-so is in charge of – but nobody really understands or cares about.  I’m talking about a process that is inclusive and seeks to define value before money changes hands or services are rendered; something that could, should, and often does take place anywhere leadership is happening.

Early in a program, process, policy, etc. evaluative thinking prompts questions like:

  • Why is this needed?
  • What are other perspectives on this?
  • What kind of difference will this make?
  • How will we know it is working?
  • How will we know what to “fix” if it isn’t working?

Asking questions slows things down – but if we’re talking about something “big” it could save a lot of money, heartburn, and/or embarrassment later. I’d rather avoid doing something that isn’t needed or doesn’t work than find out later I just wasted time, money, and probably other things.

That said, I’m all for risk-taking as long as folks know that is what they are doing. I’m willing to take a risk on something as long as it doesn’t cost too much and I’m not likely to lose something I don’t want to lose. When it comes to a medical procedure, I want to be sure it is needed and there’s evidence it works (and that it will work in my situation).  Then again, if I had an ailment rare enough to not be fully understood – I might be willing to try out an experimental treatment. As long as I know what kind of risk I’m taking – I’m cool with it. In complex and high-need situations, sometimes you have to try different things out to figure things out.

But to really benefit from – well, just about anything – someone with a keen evaluative eye should pay attention as things unfold. Asking questions like – Are things going as expected? Should we make changes in order to reach our goal? Should we change our goal? Have we learned something we can apply to make improvements? And at the end of a phase or whenever makes sense – it’s time to ask about how well something worked. Was it worth the resources? Keep in mind there may be different answers to those questions from different perspectives.

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