Planning for prosperity with Halogen Performance


The City of Keene is a vibrant community; a hub of activity in south-western New Hampshire with a reputation for taking new and creative approaches to the planning and delivery of city services. With a mission to provide services and amenities that enhance the quality of life for its residents, businesses and visitors, Keene, via an intensive community-based planning process, recently sanctioned a comprehensive Community Master Plan (CMP). This plan sets forth the municipality’s vision for the future and lays the groundwork for policies and programs to guide decisions and achieve goals.

Keene's CMP is a weighty matter. Knowing where the City wants to be in 2028 is one thing. Knowing how to align the organization with those plans is quite another. In short order, City leaders began to ask: Are we doing the right things? Are the services we’re providing what the public really wants? Can we afford the services the public wants? To complicate matters, state budgets across the U.S. were starting to be cut, with costs cascading down to municipalities.

A city in action: executive summary

People with a passion for their community can make great things happen. Using Halogen Performance™ as a fundamental performance management tool, the City of Keene — through its HR team, department heads and motivated workforce — is fast becoming a model of success:

  • Shifting from paper to a cloud-based performance appraisal system is proving to be faster, more flexible and user-friendly, and easier to control.
  • Performance appraisal completion rates are steadily climbing — from an average of 65.34% in 2009 to 75 percent in 2010, with a goal of 90% in 2011.
  • They're considering a move to a pay-for-performance program that supports the City’s master plan by aligning city, department and employee objectives.
  • Performance gaps are now being addressed by development activities — something that didn’t happen in the past.
  • They're doing more with less: when someone retires or leaves, rather than fill the position, Keene is reorganizing and giving other people more or different responsibilities, resulting in close to $1 million in reduced costs and greater employee satisfaction — attributed in large part to effective employee performance management.

The people principle

When Bill Prokop, Assistant City Manager/HR Director, arrived in Keene in mid-2008, he conducted an informal audit to find out what the City’s department heads wanted from their HR team. Some 90 percent indicated the need to improve the municipality’s employee performance review process. Each department head could feel the pressure of what was ahead: specifically, having to do more with less.

“We’re one of the more technologically advanced cities in the state of New Hampshire, yet our performance reviews were nowhere near the rest of our automated processes,” says Prokop. Historically, full-time employees, part-timers, and both non-union and union employees represented by six unions, received performance assessments on an annual basis. With the exception of a well-thought-out system used by the City’s police department, all others received what could be likened to a school report card.

“What we were evaluating was whether they came to work on time, how many sick days they had left, proper grooming, that sort of thing. Not only that, it was a paper process. Except for the police department, the same form was used on the anniversary date of hiring and for a transfer or promotion,” Prokop recounts.

In some instances, a supervisor may have included a narrative with the assessment but, in most cases, it was a simple checklist. Reviews were focused on what had been done in the past with no time spent discussing performance goals or what was required going forward.

With the new CMP top of mind, Keene’s senior management decided they needed an employee performance appraisal system that would align the goals and objectives of departments and individuals with the overall goals and objectives of the City. “We have to be sure we’re all focused on the key things we want to get done,” says Prokop, “and an instrumental step toward Keene’s robust, sustainable future involves strong employee engagement.”

A maverick on the move

Prior to searching for a solution, HR took an important first step and invited a cross-section of mid-level employees to identify meaningful competencies. This list was subsequently shared with department heads for fine-tuning.

From the start, it was clear the cloud-based performance management solution needed to be flexible — something that could be configured to accommodate the unique needs of the police department, as well as the needs of the fire department, and could be adapted for City departments such as finance and administration, public works and the library, among others. “We weren’t interested in just buying a package off-the-shelf,” Prokop asserts.

When reviewing vendor options, the City’s Information Management Services department played a pivotal consultative role. “Halogen Performance came out head and shoulders above others,” says Vicki Flanders, Human Resources Assistant. “It not only automated the process, it enabled us to link the goals of the City and its departments with our employees’ goals, and it gave us the ability to change competencies and forms as needed.”

As part of the due diligence process, calls were made to other municipalities who already were using Halogen Software's Halogen TalentSpace™ to discern their issues, approaches and implementation measures. According to Prokop, “their insights and experiences were helpful and also influenced our decision to select Halogen Software.”

Championing change

In order to secure acceptance and begin to change long-standing attitudes regarding performance reviews and the way employee performance was managed, the program launch was staged to roll out slowly, beginning with just under 100 non-union people.

Training was an important part of the rollout. Supervisors and department heads were invited to attend product demonstrations. Step-by-step instructions were created to lead individuals through completing the Halogen Performance form. “Halogen was very supportive throughout,” claims Prokop.

Struggles and resistance were minimal, though the learning curve was admittedly steep, with competencies being a new concept to most. Some hand-holding was needed, but most users naturally adapted to the system. More importantly, some of those who were initially tepid to change are now reported to be the best supporters, writing better reviews.

An important part of the new performance management process, was the inclusion of self-appraisals. Initially, employees were hesitant to complete their self-appraisals. The previous process didn’t ask them what they thought about their performance. But they quickly came to see their value. In addition, supervisors were also uncomfortable at first with honestly telling a direct report where there was room for improvement. They too, quickly saw how constructive feedback helped drive employee performance, and Halogen Performance's comment helper text and coaching and development tips gave them extra guidance and support.

Lessons learned from this pilot launch will guide the next stages of deployment to the City’s other departments over the next two years.

“We started our implementation conference calls with Halogen in March 2009 and launched the system in June 2009 for a July 1 effective date, which marks the beginning of our fiscal year and the start of new objectives,” Flander notes, adding, “I have to say the on-site training Halogen provided and the customer service we received were fantastic. Any time we have questions, Halogen still is there right away with an answer.”

Capitalizing on a productive workforce

Does the City's ability to conduct reviews in a more structured manner feed back into better service delivery and tie into the master plan?

Reports indicate the City is doing a better job of identifying employees who aren't performing and addressing concerns early. “Our philosophy,” Prokop says, “is that we want to have the right people on the bus all the time. Sometimes, we've had the right people on the bus, but they were in the wrong seats. Through Halogen Performance, we're trying to make sure that we’ve got a group of people who are performing so that we’re giving the best service we can to the taxpayer, at the lowest cost.”

In bottom-line dollars, this translates into significant savings especially given the fact that, for the past couple of years, when an employee retires or leaves, Keene is reorganizing and giving other people more or different responsibilities, rather than filling the now vacant position.

“People are growing and enjoying greater career satisfaction,” says Prokop, “and the City is doing more with less. If you do the math and take an average salary of $60 000 to $75 000 including benefits — which is probably low — and apply that sum to 11 vacated positions, there's almost a million dollars in reduced cost; and we haven't slipped on our critical service levels at all. If we didn’t have a good performance management program and we weren't addressing the concerns of employees or supervisors, we wouldn’t have that kind of savings without an impact to our performance levels.”

One of the problems municipalities and state governments share, Prokop explains, referencing the way things are in the state of New Hampshire, is the compensation system. Most municipalities have a system that revolves around a base salary with step increases. As long as an employee shows up for work, they get an increase every year, depending on how many steps are in their wage plan. “We are considering a move to pay for performance or a combination of both, which ties back to our master plan. That’s part of the shift to focus on goal attainment and alignment as opposed to basic performance. It was and continues to be a big change for us.”

Metrics also show improvement in performance evaluation completion rates. Prior to the introduction of Halogen Performance, 2009 completion rates were 65.34 percent. In 2010, that climbed to 75 percent. The City's HR team is pleased with progress to date. More important, they’re pleased with the quality of reviews. There's more honesty. If there’s an area where an employee can improve, it's discussed and development plans are put in place. This is something that didn't happen in the past. And there’s more ongoing coaching throughout the year, resulting in more continuity between supervisor assessments and individual self-appraisals.

“To anybody in the municipal business,” says Prokop, “we selected Halogen Performance because of its complete flexibility and Halogen’s exceptional customer service. And, of course, there's the automation factor — it's there in front of us. It's saving paper. It's faster. And it gives us more control. There's such a need for this type of programming within municipalities, and I think Halogen has a very good product and delivers great service. We're very pleased.”