Positive Incentives in Government: Superior Accomplishment Awards


One of the most important fields in which I can find almost no research is one the role of positive and negative bureaucratic incentives on government efficiency. In other words, how you could punish or reward civil servants to get the best results. It is well known that it is virtually impossible to fire a government employee but there’s also shockingly few ways to reward them for doing the right thing. And the positive incentive thing is interesting for me, both for obvious reasons, but also because it’s so unexplored; most people are more interested in punishing performance than rewarding good performance.

Consider the California Department of Public Health. I started getting messages on my phone just a few days ago that the contact tracing app for California is available and that I should start using it. This is suboptimal: we’ve been living with Covid for 9 months now and the tracking app is becoming widely available just before the vaccine is. And while many might think of this as another example of lazy and incompetent government workers, I can’t help but wonder if we might have had the app much sooner if we’d just…paid the workers bonuses to rush out the app. I mean, most of the business world has bonuses, especially for good performance, especially for rushing out massive super-important apps. If we’d had this contact-tracing app two months sooner, we might have avoided the October-November Covid spike we’re all suffering through. What would Google or Microsoft pay in bonuses to rush out an app worth billions in a nine-month time frame? Yet not only am I confident that no one involved at the California Department of Public Health received any financial incentive for completing this (save maybe overtime), I’m not even sure the legal mechanisms exist for them to be rewarded.

California only really has four ways to reward workers: promotions, merit pay bumps, Accomplishment awards, and the Employee suggestion program. Of these, neither promotions nor merit pay bumps are good incentives, though for opposite reasons, and the employee suggestion program is really interesting but I can’t find good data on it. I have been able to find decent data on the Accomplishment award program, which provides awards of $25-$500 for exceptional performance but require approval from an external authority: CalHR. I’ve managed to get the records of all such awards approved by CalHR over the past five fiscal year through a PRA and I’d like to show you what I’ve found and also provided cleaned up data for you to do your own analysis.


The full data is included below as a csv file but it’s not too complex, with only two real insights. First, the program is relatively small but larger than you might think given its visibility. Second, the awards are focused on a few state agencies which receive the overwhelming majority.

First, the program is relatively small but larger than I thought. California averages roughly 1120 awards a year for about $260,000, averaging $235 per award. That’s not huge but given that the California state government employees about 118,000 people and most people work 25-30 years, there should be 27,000-33,000 awards in an employees career, which makes it weird that no one knows anyone who’s gotten one.

This gets explained when you discover who gets the awards. The Department of Transportation has received $660,100 in awards over the past five fiscal years, almost exactly 50% of all the Superior Achievement award money given by the state. It has also received 40% of the total awards. This is somewhat understandable given the Department of Transportations size. If you add in the other top five performers (DMV, State Controller’s Office, State Water Resource Board, and DOI) you’ll find these five agencies comprise 64% of all awards and 75% of all award money.

Productive action:

So who cares? There’s probably a lot of fun debate to be had by outsiders on rights and wrongs of this program but from a constructive standpoint, the most important people to talk to are the various managers and executives in the State of California. As I’ve stated before, I think one of the biggest challenges of being a manager in the State of California is the general inability to punish or reward behavior. This isn’t the strongest tool but…I mean I’d appreciate someone rewarding me with $250 and it’s not like SoC managers have a lot of tools at their disposal.

My main takeaway for SoC managers would be that this program is a real option. The Department of Transportation is getting their people paid to the tune of $132,000 a year and they’re doing it consistently and widely. If they can, there’s no reason you can’t. I’ll post some tools but I think one of the real constraints on SoC managers doing this is they don’t know anyone who has ever submitted one of the applications or had them approved. Well, consider this a notice that you may not know them, unless you work in one of a few departments, but there are hundreds of managers and executives using this tool every year and I don’t think there’s any special reason they can do it and you can’t

You can find the Superior Accomplishment Award description and form here.

You can download the data here

And you can download three sample completed Accomplishment Awards here: ,




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