Four Steps toward Fostering a High-Performing Culture in Government

BY COLIN MURPHY

In the United States, twenty-two million people work in government.[1] These people sweep our streets, educate our children, and protect our borders. So much of our quality of life depends on how well these employees and their teams are working. Government performance—the ability of the people and organizations within government to deliver services effectively and efficiently—matters because it affects us all. Improving government performance, however, is a tough nut to crack. For one, there is no simple bottom line measure of success for government agencies as there is in business. And even if there were, few people would make the case that our government agencies are sufficiently high performing. Given these realities, what can we do to improve government performance?

Citizens dissatisfied with government performance can vote out elected officials, but this is rarely a satisfying driver for improved performance. There are also newer, more focused efforts under development, such as “pay for success” models. In these models, governments deliver services in a structure that incentivizes improved outcomes.[2] Such efforts, whether leadership or policy changes, eventually run up against an important and often intractable element of organizational performance: culture.

Consider a state-level child welfare department. Thousands of children in vulnerable circumstances depend on the work of this department. While a new leader or new policies may offer hope for improved performance—providing better care for children—success will depend on the ingrained habits and practices of front-line workers and their supervisors as well as their openness to change. If the culture of the department is not high performing—that is to say, the culture does not facilitate the ongoing adaptation necessary for sustainable growth in results—new initiatives will fall short of their potential. For example, a staff member may not propose new ways to use data to match children to the most appropriate care situation if he or she fears a hostile reception from others due to a change-resistant culture.

Culture, in the context of organizational performance, is the combination of social norms, shared values, and habits expressed by a group of people. It is typically applied to understand how well a group is carrying out its work. You know a practice is part of the culture when it becomes “the way we do things around here,” according to John Kotter, a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School who writes about culture.[3] An organization’s culture is a complex phenomenon. It is hard to describe or measure, and it has varied causes and manifestations.

Influencing culture in government settings presents a unique set of challenges. Compared to the business world, government organizations tend to offer fewer talent development opportunities and present greater bureaucratic constraints. These two features often inhibit how individuals and teams are able to improve their work performance. Yet opportunities exist to overcome these challenges. In pursuit of high performance in government, culture demands our attention.

The Relationship between Culture and Performance

This article explores how the culture of an organization affects its ability to deliver results—in a word, performance. Admittedly, understanding an organization’s culture is far from simple. For any one organization or company, many cultures and subcultures will exist. In addition to being itself diverse, culture also influences how an organization works in myriad ways. Culture can have both negative and positive manifestations. For example, a prominent New York Times article described a “bruising workplace” at Amazon.[4] On the other hand, Pixar, the film company, is well-known for its spirit of collaboration and creativity.[5]

Even a high-performance culture takes many shapes. For some organizations, this may mean striving to be customer focused or data driven. High-performance cultures foster a willingness to ask tough questions and to experiment with small failures. High-performing organizations exhibit a mix of accountability and learning for teams, combined with motivation and engagement for employees.

Culture influences an organization’s ability to achieve results. The business world offers many lessons on the importance of culture to performance. Professor James Heskett of Harvard Business School shows a company’s culture can account for up to 50 percent of the difference in performance between similar companies or teams.[6] This notion that even a smart strategy can run up against a mismatched culture is reflected in the common refrain, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Gallup found that organizations scoring in the top quartile on measures of engagement, one aspect of culture, averaged 18 percent higher productivity and 12 percent higher profitability compared to the bottom quartile.[7]

It is clear culture matters when it comes to improving performance. Yet effecting change in government is not the same as effecting change in business. What can government leaders and managers do to foster a high-performing culture on their teams? This article offers four practical steps, focusing on what is unique about influencing culture in a government context. The first is about defining the culture a leader wants his or her organization to exhibit. The second and third are action-oriented—one focused on empowering front-line workers with training and the other on small management changes. The fourth suggests measuring culture, allowing for learning and continuous improvement. This is not an exhaustive list but instead provides examples of what government managers can do to understand and influence culture.

1. Set a Clear Culture Vision, Building on the Public Service Purpose

Government leaders who want to change an organization’s culture should first define the culture they want to establish. One particular opportunity in a government setting is to build on the motivation that draws many employees into public service in the first place. They are all, one way or another, working to serve the public. In government, a shared commitment to public service represents an important opportunity for influencing culture among employees. The idea of assisting citizens or serving their community may help employees find common purpose in their work.

One specific way to do this is by connecting employees to residents and constituents. Elizabeth Linos of the Behavioral Insights Team, a public sector consulting firm, writes about how behavioral science ideas might apply to government employees. She cites one study indicating that frequent contact with beneficiaries can improve motivation.[8] Feeling a connection to residents and constituents may serve as an asset in efforts to influence culture change in government.

A vision should be broader than just connecting to constituents; it should also spell out other expectations for teams and employees. Mollie West, an organizational designer at IDEO, writes that organizations can define a “culture manifesto” to encapsulate that vision.[9] Governments or departments might write a culture manifesto that embraces customer service, supports experimenting with new ways of working, and encourages data-driven questions. Regardless of what is included, a vision is an essential starting point before taking further action to change culture or measure success.

2. Empower Employees to Generate Results on Their Own

People in leadership positions may feel culture is out of their reach, since so much of the work of an organization happens away from a leader’s immediate control. By empowering employees to make changes on their own, leaders can create an environment that fosters a high-performing culture.

One of the most lauded efforts in the United States to foster high-performance in city government in recent years comes from the city of Denver, Colorado. Beginning in 2012, the city launched a series of workshops called Peak Academy, which sought to “train frontline employees and mid-level managers how to eliminate waste and deliver better value to the customer.”[10] One early success story involved reducing wait times for customers who were obtaining resident parking permits. An employee proposed a simple change: adding labels to shelves to make it easier to pass out the forms quickly, which ultimately allowed his team to better serve residents.[11]

Peak Academy offers a range of training for city employees at all levels: four-hour introductory process improvement trainings; a five-day training that goes deeper, teaching tools such as process mapping and brainstorming tactics; and a day-long executive training on how to nurture process improvers on their teams. Peak Academy also offers a mentoring program to support employees as they seek to break out of the status quo. As of 2016, almost five thousand Denver employees had gone through some form of the Peak Academy training. After participating, individual employees then can become champions with their colleagues for the Peak culture, empowering others to generate innovations. Peak Academy expresses part of its cultural DNA in its motto, “Innovate. Elevate. Repeat.” As of April 2016, Peak Academy reported $15 million saved for the City of Denver over four years and more than two thousand “innovations” submitted by employees.[12]

Brian Elms, the director of Peak Academy, recognizes the role of culture in innovation, although he deliberately does not attempt to influence it directly. “Forget trying to force culture change,” he writes. “Focus on results.”[13] Elms and Peak Academy leadership see training staff and generating results as a means of changing the culture and insist culture change itself is not the goal. Despite this framing, the change in Denver is illustrative for those who want to make a difference in the way their employees work. A culture changes not simply through top-down efforts from city leadership but also bottom up. Notably, this type of empowerment requires leaders to give up some control in the process. Employees are empowered and offered the opportunity to build new skills, and thus they also develop new behaviors and mindsets. This flows through to a broader culture of performance.

3. Start Small, Even in the Face of Bureaucracy

Government leaders pursuing any kind of change are often hamstrung by limited resources and teams that work in silos. In contrast, leaders in business are often freer to embark on massive change efforts. At General Motors, CEO Mary Barra is attempting to transform the “famously stagnant bureaucracy” by focusing on culture. Some initiatives underway include cross-functional problem-solving “co-labs,” a yearlong “transformational leadership” course for top executives, and a quarterly two-day offsite retreat with her sixteen closest reports focused on their interactions.[14] With rare exceptions, the financial and bureaucratic constraints facing governments prohibit these types of massive transformations.

However, not all culture change efforts need to involve complete restructuring—they can start small. One example of a small change a leader can make toward redefining a culture is the design of “rituals.” According to organizational design consultants Mollie West and Kate McCoubrey Judson, a ritual is “a meaningful recurring practice that connects employees to an organization’s core beliefs.”[15] One example they cite is Facebook, where anyone can request posters printed with a quote or picture connected to company values of openness and creativity. West and McCoubrey believe that rituals are powerful drivers of culture. They note organizations engage in rituals all the time, and that new rituals need to feel authentic.[16] In government, a new ritual that points toward high performance might involve beginning meetings by questioning whether all the right data has been surfaced. Rituals aren’t the only small changes leaders can make—they can adjust everything from their email communication practices to the physical workplace environment. By being intentional about how practices connect to core values, an organization can reshape its culture.

4. Measure the Culture, Following the Private Sector

The business world is undergoing a shift toward quantifying aspects of talent management, also known as people analytics, and this shift represents an opportunity for government too. Culture Amp, a company based in Australia and the United States, offers a product that helps organizations collect and analyze data about employee engagement and feedback. The product is specifically pitched as a tool for culture change. While differences between sectors are important, government should also be able to quantify culture, following in the footsteps of many Culture Amp business clients. “Our philosophy still applies in the public sector. In order to improve culture, you need to understand it, and in order to understand it, you need to measure it,” says David Ostberg, director of insights at Culture Amp.[17]

Culture Amp’s products are used by companies such as Airbnb and Warby Parker and also by nonprofits such as Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children. Culture Amp calls its product a “people analytics platform.”[18] They offer a survey that asks questions about employee engagement, such as how much employees feel recognized by senior leadership. Based on the results of regular surveying, leaders can identify problem areas facing their teams or subunits that merit extra attention. Taking action is an essential step, and leaders would be misguided to conduct only the surveys. Instead, they should make changes with the same frequency that surveys are offered, demonstrating to employees that the information collected is actually being used. Otherwise, these surveys risk becoming black boxes for employee frustration that can create further disengagement.[19]

These products are part of a broader trend of optimism around the ability to influence culture directly, applying some of the Silicon Valley ethos that everything can be quantified and conducted digitally. Culture Amp has competitors that offer similar survey products, such as 15Five and Officevibe.[20] A similar tool, VoloMetrix, was purchased by Microsoft in 2015.[21] Leaders and managers in government can adopt these survey tools or even create their own. The tools offer an empirical assessment of culture, clarifying variations between teams or over time. From there leaders can pinpoint opportunities for new interventions and assess their effectiveness. Crucially, these tools represent an opportunity for leaders to assess their progress toward whatever vision they set for culture change.

Looking Ahead

Drawing on lessons from the business community and cutting-edge efforts across other states and localities, we can foster a high-performance culture in government. By defining a clear culture vision and tapping into a sense of purpose, governments can help employees find intrinsic motivation. By empowering employees to make changes themselves, leaders can promote a bottom-up approach to change. Leaders can play their part by making small changes, such as new rituals, specifically targeted at improving the culture. And finally, through measurement, governments can continuously improve, building on what is working and what is not. Given the importance of the work of those twenty-two million government employees, and the millions more around the world, we must ensure a culture of high performance.

Colin Murphy is serving as a Government Performance Lab Fellow working with the Florida Department of Children and Families. He graduated from the Kennedy School at Harvard University with a Master in Public Policy. Before attending the Kennedy School, he worked at the Bridgespan Group, providing strategic consulting to mission-driven organizations. Colin is passionate about government performance and helping government organizations to better meet the needs of the people they represent.

Photo Credit: Matthew Henry via Unsplash


[1] “Data Retrieval: Employment, Hours, and Earnings (CES),” Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed 1 February 2017, https://www.bls.gov/webapps/legacy/cesbtab1.htm.

[2] “Pay for Success—Social Impact Bonds,” Government Performance Lab, accessed 20 February 2017, http://govlab.hks.harvard.edu/social-impact-bond-lab.

[3] John P. Kotter, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” Harvard Business Review, January 2007, (96–103) 96.

[4] Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” New York Times, 16 August 2015.

[5] Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, (New York: Random House, 2014).

[6] James Heskett, “The Culture Cycle: How to Shape the Unseen Force that Transforms Performance,” online webinar at Harvard Business Review. 21 May 2012, accessed 1 February 2017, https://hbr.org/webinar/2012/06/culture-cycle-the-unseen-force.

[7] James K. Harter, et al., “Q12 Meta-Analysis.” Gallup (2006), 36.

[8] Elizabeth Linos, “Using Behavioural Science to Improve the Government Workforce,” Oxford Government Review, no. 1 (August 2016), 41–42.

[9] Mollie West, “How To Create a Culture Manifesto for Your Organization (And Why It’s a Good Idea),” Stanford Social Innovation Review Blog, 29 January 2016, accessed 12 February 2017, https://ssir.org/articles/entry/how_to_create_a_culture_manifesto_for_your_organization_and_why_its_a_good.

[10] Brian Elms and J.B. Wogan, Peak Performance: How Denver’s Peak Academy is Saving Money, Boosting Morale and Just Maybe Changing the World. (And How You Can, Too!). (Washington, D.C.: Governing, 2016), 7.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 5.

[13] Ibid., 28.

[14] Rick Tetzeli, “Mary Barra is Remaking GM’s Culture—and the Company Itself,” Fast Company, 17 October 2016, https://www.fastcompany.com/3064064/most-innovative-companies/mary-barra-is-remaking-gms-culture-and-the-company-itself.

[15] Mollie West and Kate McCoubrey Judson, “Want to Strengthen Workplace Culture? Design a Ritual,” The Huffington Post. 26 August 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/great-work-cultures/want-to-strengthen-workpl_b_11730914.html.

[16] Ibid.

[17] David Ostberg, Interview with Colin Murphy, Phone interview, 31 January 2017.

[18] Mollie West, “New Tools for Measuring and Improving Employee Engagement,” Stanford Social Innovation Review Blog, 17 August 2016, accessed 1 February 2017, https://ssir.org/articles/entry/new_tools_for_measuring_and_improving_employee_engagement.

[19] Ostberg, Phone interview.

[20] West, “New Tools for Measuring and Improving Employee Engagement.”

[21] Rajesh Jha “Microsoft to acquire VoloMetrix to empower individuals and drive organizational productivity,” Microsoft, 3 September 2015, accessed 1 February 2017, https://blogs.microsoft.com/blog/2015/09/03/microsoft-to-acquire-volometrix-to-empower-individuals-and-drive-organizational-productivity/#B2tUwX51xpPjlgDC.99.