Who should read this newsletter? Normally, the answer is “CEOs and other executives who want to do more than pay lip-service to improving company performance”. But, this newsletter is a departure from my normal format and subject matter. I am simply trying to shed some light and stimulate some dialogue on a situation that effects all of us. I am hoping to hear back from you as to your own insights on these issues as well as ideas for a solution.
The departure from the Alaska state government of two of the best leaders I have had the pleasure to work with, as well as the looming critical election for governor of Alaska, prompts me to reflect on that which is challenging (at best) or broken (i.e. can’t be fixed without radical change) in the public sector. Applies to all government really. Anyway, here goes.
Beliefs at the root of the problem
The following are the belief structures within government that seem to be pervasive, especially among “conservatives”, that impede the ability of government to perform:
Government is a malignancy foisted on hard working people by bleeding heart liberals – I can’t say that I understand this one. You hear it a good deal from conservative politicians and in conservative communities in Alaska, but then hear these same folks complaining bitterly when they don’t get the services they “deserve”. Don’t know how they hold that duality. I have never heard a coherent statement by a conservative re. where the responsibility of government should end and foolishness begins. Rather, listening to them one would think that government is worse than a necessary evil, that it is an unnecessary evil. All I can say is that if your boss (the legislature) believes you are unnecessary, it is hard to have high morale and to be effective. Working with these employees I get the sense that appreciation for their work is rarely, if ever, expressed. Rather, they get a steady diet of complaints from citizens who feel abused and politicians who hear from the “abused”.
Think about being in a private sector job and your employer believes there is little or no value in what you do. The attitude of conservatives seems to be that there is no return on investment in a state employee. Therefore, we should cut as many of those jobs as possible and put the funding into capital improvements that will deliver a return on investment. There also seems to be the belief that jobs once created can never be taken away. While that may be the history, legislatures control that process, thus can change it if they wish. In sum, I wonder whether the intent of those on the right is to improve it or find fault and try to destroy it.
- Government workers can’t be trusted – I haven’t researched the history, but learned in my political science courses that the design of our democracy is built upon a “balance of powers”. That is, there shall be checks and balances between the branches of government and within the executive branch itself. Well, my sense is that the underlying theory here is that any one branch of government would be abusive of its citizens should it be left to its own devices. Within the executive bureaucracy, that got translated into no one position of authority being trusted to make an independent decision. So, we have lots of oversight by individuals, Department of Administration, governor’s office, etc. The impact of this is that effective leaders are hamstrung compared to their experience in the private sector.
- Government workers are spoiled – When I founded PGS in 1981, I traveled to Juneau and interviewed commissioners of state departments. I inquired about their interest in investing in organizational development. Their response was that the legislature would not authorize investment in such efforts. I was rather appalled at that notion, so I checked it out. Sure enough the legislators I interviewed confirmed the worst. Their view was that State workers were overpaid (including benefits) and thus should be proficient at their jobs. The state has cut back on its benefits, especially retirement, and increases in pay structure have not kept pace with inflation, so I am assuming that this attitude still prevails 30 years later.
The best strategy for making an impact is political appointments – Increasingly over the years, governors have chosen a strategy of increasing the number of political appointments (vs. traditional civil service positions) as a means of putting their stamp and control on the bureaucracy and to achieve their ends. Loyalty is valued over experience and competence (Note the link to the distrust belief above). This has been counterproductive in my view.
Political appointments now are two to three levels down in government agencies. Middle managers are forced to train their superiors and that process takes 6-12 months. Middle managers and line staff tolerate the leadership initiatives of the political appointees they have had to train. In effect, there is no consistent leadership (i.e. taking people on a journey to where they would not go themselves), and the performance of government suffers.
Look for yourself at the average tenure of high ranking government officials. Examine that against your common sense definition of how long it would take a new leader to be effective, and answer the question for yourself. My take: a governor would be better off trying to win the hearts and minds of the experienced staff (i.e. effectively lead) than forcing a new leader upon them. Good politics does not equate to good management, and ultimately a governor needs to be an effective leader/manager to implement his/her agenda.
I would submit that you simply can’t get high performance when operating under a belief structure that holds that you shouldn’t exist and won’t be competent. While there is plenty of room for debate on what should be the scope and cost of government services, more attention, debate and effective action needs to be devoted to making a government of whatever size more effective. You simply won’t get there with a belief system such as that described above.
The impediments to high performance
Unionization – It has been said that the greatest mistake President John F. Kennedy made was to allow public service employees to unionize. In defense of the unions, if you were facing a condition where those who control your life (i.e. governor and legislature) operate from the beliefs stated above, what would you do? Seems to me you would have to organize and unionize in order to protect your own survival. But I submit that both the anti-government beliefs and unionization to counter them are counter-productive if we want to achieve a high performing public sector. Unions tend to protect those performing below acceptable standards and drive supervisors to apathy about ever being able to develop a high performing work force. The discipline and removal process is so time and energy consuming, that supervisors grow apathetic about trying. The low performers are effectively closeted, which only heaps work on those who do perform and/or increases the cost of government as we need to add positions.
If we remain on the current path of union vs. management (in this case legislature and governor), government not working or adding value will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There were similar problems in the private sector with the auto and airline industries. Union pressures were threatening the survivability of companies competing against non-union and international competitors. When the very survival of these companies was at stake, the union and management came to agreement on cost issues with the result that many of these companies have subsequently flourished.
Could such a coming together occur in government? Hard to see that happening. There is not a marketplace that penalizes the inefficient, and there is no opportunity for power sharing (e.g. union appointments to the board of directors) that was part of many of these agreements. Ultimately, a marketplace of sorts will discipline as is the case with the Detroit bankruptcy. It would be wise to dialogue on a solution before we get there. This would include more rigorous attempts to measure the value and efficiency of government services so that belief systems can shift.
- Inability to reward peak performers – A consistent refrain I hear from effective managers in the state is that they are hamstrung both by the inability to discipline and to reward. Managers can’t buy a lunch or a cup of coffee to express appreciation. I am not sure whether these rules come from the executive or union side of negotiations, but I wonder, do the employees impacted really want this sterile managerial environment? Did they vote on it? It is true that there would always be complaints about how rewards are administered, but a solution of no rewards is not a solution.
- The tyranny of job descriptions – Work rules dictate that management not ask employees to go outside of their stated job duties even in a crisis situation. Inability to cross-train, multi-task, implement flexible working hours all retard managements ability to react to changing conditions and consistently deliver good performance. I know there must be a “why” for this, but I don’t know or get it.
- The tyranny of the Department of Administration – I am not familiar with the details here, but DOA appears to be the enforcer of many of these impediments to the annoyance of commissioners and deputies. Very little latitude is given to managers. Maybe this is the needed fix because the political appointees don’t know the State system initially. There is an irony here. But it appears we pay a heavy price for the fix. Decision making is slow and inflexible.
- Non-competitive compensation/benefits – There has been much consternation, study and debate about this in the Parnell Administration. Departments have reported wholesale losses of key personnel to the Federal government and private sector. The Administration has responded with a study that found that compensation was competitive. Departments questioned the methodology. The Administration allowed the consultant to withhold revealing the methodology, and here we sit at gridlock while still leaking key personnel. The folks I know voice that the disparity between the state and Federal or private sectors is in the 30% range. You get what you pay for to some degree. It used to be that the state was a coveted place to work, but that has eroded over time. If this continues, then the belief structures detailed above become even more of a self-fulfilling prophecy due to inability to attract talent.
- Cynicism about change – Years ago we were doing a two-day workshop with a State agency. It was going very well for the first day and a half. After lunch on the second day, the energy in the room shifted dramatically. I inquired of the group as to what had happened. They exclaimed, “we are We-Be’s”. Not knowing the term, I inquired. “We-Be” means “we be here when you be gone”. They further explained that “you almost had us sucked in, believing positive change could happen. But at the end of the day, you, the commissioner, the governor will be gone and we will go back to what we always do. We have endured fads and shifts in policy for years, in the end, it goes back to what we know and what will endure”. Sad commentary, indeed. They wish it wasn’t that way. But you can only have your hopes raised and dashed on the rocks so many times because the leader moves on, is fired, is voted out, etc.
The good news
Despite all of the above, my experience with the state workforce is that they are by-and-large committed to their mission, work hard and try to remain positive. They are often cynical about their leadership, but who could blame them.
If we could ever get a real dialogue on these issues and confront that what we are experiencing is a self-fulfilling prophecy, we and they could achieve much more. Government employees deserve better than what they are getting.
Well, you may not have learned a thing here except about my frustrations. If so, my apologies as my intent in doing these newsletters is to serve you. I just can’t remain silent on these issues. Alaska is heading into a very challenging future. We need to be different if we are going to prosper. The old thinking, old politics, old methods won’t get us there.
A friend of mine recently relayed a metaphor that works well for me in explaining our dysfunctions. Republicans are the father: get tough, do it on your own, survival of the fittest, you get what you put in. Democrats are the mother: life is hard, I will nurture, I will bandage your wounds, I will make you soup when sick, I will be your safety net because life is cruelly tough. I know that if I just give you a hand, you will make it. I believe in you.
My take: Mommy and Daddy need to talk. They are both right. They just need to give up always being right and making the other wrong. Right now, they are headed for a costly divorce and all of us will pay the tab.
Get active in politics my friends. Pay attention. Hold them accountable to what you believe. Vote wisely.
I pledge to return to my senses and to managerial topics in the New Year. Meanwhile, I would love to hear your thoughts. E-mail me to start the conversation.