Government Needs to Join the Revolution

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UK Department for Communities and Local Government / CC BY 2.0
November 28, 2016

This post is a wakeup call for government. In the private sector, leading companies have been undergoing a quiet revolution in the way work is organized and managed. This revolution can be seen in the many articles on “the best places to work”, high performance organizations, and employee engagement. The common thread in these pieces is the goal to create a work environment where employees are empowered to perform at higher levels.

The revolution in the private sector originated in the years after the 1990-91 recession. To reduce costs and become more competitive, companies eliminated layers of management and bureaucracy. After the reorganization, managers were responsible for supervising greater numbers of employees, while the old, “over-the-shoulder”, close supervision and textbook rules limiting “span of control” were forgotten.

In traditional organizations, employees were expected to follow directions and stay out of trouble. Tight cost management was a priority, jobs were defined with detailed job descriptions, and pass/fail performance ratings and step increases were common. The dominant style of management was one of top-down control.

Today there are employees who rarely meet with their supervisors. When circumstances change or problems arise in their work, they are empowered to make job-related decisions on their own. In fact, there are now self-managed teams that have no supervisor at all. The autonomy makes work more challenging, but also more satisfying. In those “best places to work”, employees are managed as assets, and are respected and valued for their contributions.

The revolution is not limited to business. Empowered employees are common in healthcare and higher education as well.

Employees are capable of performing at significantly higher levels than they currently do, and it is reasonable to expect an increase in productivity under a more effective management strategy. The key is trusting people, having high expectations, and eliminating constraints.

When employees are seen as assets, it redefines a company’s “people management” strategy. Fully competitive salaries become a part of that strategy. So does investing in developing skills. It also encourages employers to develop effective reward practices and celebrate achievements.

The changes in work management practices promise to be reflected in the organization’s “brand” as an employer as well, which in turn strengthens recruiting.

When civil service systems were created decades ago, there was a clear need to protect employees from politically-motivated staffing decisions. That need is still very much present, as recent media reports show. However, many practices that affect the work environment are unrelated to that goal, and changes that will contribute to better results can be adopted at no or minimal cost. For instance, new practices like calibration committees for review of proposed personnel actions can minimize discrimination.

There are of course jurisdictions that have already transitioned away from the worst bureaucratic practices. The one I know best is Charlotte, a city that for years was seen as a model for good government. Tennessee has more recently reformed its practices as well.

But the pressure to improve performance is a reason for every public employer to regularly evaluate the effectiveness of its practices. Human resource practices are the common focus, but the changes associated with high performance involve day-to-day management. Internal communications, for example, are a key issue. Managers and employees know what’s working and what’s not. 

HR is rarely mentioned in books on high performance, but it costs nothing to involve them in the evaluation process. HR specialists can provide advice and information on the proven practices in other organizations. They can champion the need to reconsider practices but top management has to make change a priority.

In future blogs, I plan to discuss the changes government should consider in order to improve employee work experience and agency performance.

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
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Philadelphia, PA 19104

(215) 898-7326

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