Changing the Culture in Government: A Conversation with Ted Gaebler

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Derivitive of "Clandestine Operations" by Damian Gadal / FlickrCC
April 3, 2017

Ted Gaebler has had a successful career in public service, city management, and mentoring young professionals. He is perhaps best known for his book, Reinventing Government, which he co-wrote with David Osborne. The innovative ideas of that book have had a widespread impact on government processes, accountability, and utilizing data for systemic change. In this second installment of a conversation with Ted Gaebler (see the first here), Fels Institute of Government Executive Director Nelson Lim sat down with Mr. Gaebler to discuss his views on ways to incentivize employees and maximize outputs, creativity, and innovation.

Nelson Lim: During your time as a city manager, what did you do to dramatically change the culture of the local governments you served?

I once found that I had an employee who was running one of my refuse collection divisions, but on his off time he was the statewide president of a nonprofit with over three thousand people, giving major speeches and raising funds in the millions. All this talent he was taking offshore (not benefiting our city government). Many people working for me were using great talents in churches and nonprofit organizations but none of this creativity and energy was being brought to bear on their jobs.

I created a culture that enabled people to utilize many of their talents and expertise inside our government. I did this in three ways: The office of new ideas, stock certificates, and “The Next 100 Program.”

The Office of New Ideas

One of the things that stifles creativity in a bureaucracy is the chain of command. People are locked into silos of their department where they happen to be assigned at that particular moment. There is no organization-wide forum to contribute ideas. When they give ideas to their direct supervisor, that person usually has no interest whatsoever. Frequently employees have a really exciting experience over the weekend at church or another organization and realize that what they learned could easily be applied to their job. On Monday, they bring their ideas back to their boss and the boss says, “Get back to work.” And that idea is killed. Middle managers kill more new ideas and more enthusiasm than you can imagine. So my solution was to create a place where people don’t have to go through chain of command to have their ideas vetted.

So we set up a plan where the City Manager, the Assistant City Manager, the Finance Director, and one or two rotating department heads would meet next to the break room where employees could pretend they are going to bathroom or getting a Coke. And they could sneak in. There was a sign on the door that said “the office of new ideas.” Without any appointment, any permission, without going through the hierarchy, employees could share new ideas. The ideas were in all in different stages of development and they could receive feedback (and monetary support) on their ideas.

We found that after a couple of years, people weren’t coming as much because there wasn’t a ton of follow-up so the executive assistant asked, “Why don’t you have someone taking notes?” She would call up and ask how the new idea was coming along. With secretarial support, we were able to follow up on more ideas and bring them to fruition.

Stock Certificates

Owners are more careful with resources. Often employees don’t care if lights stay on because it doesn’t affect their pay, but owners know that every extra cent goes straight to their profit. So, I figured if we could make employees feel and act like owners, they will not waste resources.

So, how do you make employees feel like owners? One answer is to give them a stock certificate, so they feel like they “own the company.” To issue real stock certificates, our Human Resources department bought bonds ($5K) with Human Resource’s money, and we created $100 stock certificates, backed up by real bonds.

Twice a year at employee meetings, we would reward creative and innovative employees with a stock certificate (and sometimes an additional bonus check). Then we said, “You are hereby a part owner,” and people put them on the wall and didn’t cash them in, and they had great pride of the certificates on their wall. In this way, you change the culture from abuser of resource to owner of resource. People want to do good things: if they can reap some reward.

“The Next 100”

It’s been called a number of different things at all the places I’ve worked, but the concept of “The Next 100” is building a cadre of people who are interested in pursuing a career in higher-level management. Gathering them together to create and meet is especially fruitful for those who have interest in things outside of their department with like-minded folks.

Many people within an organization have energy to give, and pulling them together results in less fighting and fewer silos. We created small groups that I met with both during and outside of work hours. If we let them meet from 4pm-6pm then the first hour they would be on “my time” and the second hour they would be on their own time. Another way to go about this is to have them meet from 7am-9am to ask them to make an investment that shows their commitment.

In these meetings, people could talk about whatever they wanted to talk about. As a result of these meetings, friendships emerged. Animosity between departments broke down and historical competition between departments lessened.

We would also discuss strategies to fix problems. For example, if they brought it to our attention that it takes too long to be reimbursed and if it was an internal problem…they changed it. As members of “The Next 100” and with their work outside their department, people bolstered their reputations for working across lines.

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
3814 Walnut St. 
Philadelphia, PA 19104

(215) 898-7326

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