Promising Practices

Stewart Liff | December 10, 2015 | 0 Comments

Why Do So Many Government Incentive Awards Programs Fail?


My experience as a government employee for 32 years and a consultant/teacher for nine has taught me that most incentive awards programs do not work. In fact, many have failed so miserably that they wound up being disincentive awards programs.

Why have they failed?

Simply put, it's because employees were generally not involved in the incentive process (goal setting, tracking performance, etc.) and did not see any relationship between performance/behavior and rewards. When employees 1) don’t know what they need to do to be rewarded, and 2) they see that supervisors reward their favorite employees (even if they are not particularly good) while withholding bonuses from those they don’t like (even if they are outstanding), it generates frustration among the troops and helps create a culture of cynicism that we see far too often in government.

Even under the best of circumstances, establishing an effective incentive awards program in government is not easy. After all, the size of the awards that are typically given are often much smaller than those in the private sector — not enough to really motivate people. Moreover, how often have we seen a freeze on awards at individual agencies or governmentwide due to budget constraints? This substantially weakens the program. Nonmonetary awards must play a significant role in any incentive awards program.

So how do you develop an effective incentive awards program in government?

I would start with the approach espoused by Jack Stack in his seminal book The Great Game of Business. You want to get all employees into the game so they think like co-owners of the organization. Here’s the basic idea:

The amount of the awards given is less important than making sure employees are involved and engaged in the operation. Providing employees the opportunity to make a difference and see that their opinions are truly valued provides a much greater incentive than giving a few hundred dollars at the end of the year to people who may or may not be deserving of a reward.

That said, incentive awards programs can be an excellent tool when they are properly designed and implemented. Here are some principles for putting an effective strategy in place:

Designing an incentive awards program that truly gets employees into the game and is perceived as fair, predictable and open, can help motivate the workforce and take the organization to another level.

Stewart Liff is a fellow with The Performance Institute, specializing in human resources management, visual performance management and team development. He is the author of multiple books, including Managing Government Employees and A Team of Leaders. Contact him at

(Image via SuslO/