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The Forgotten Importance of Government’s Workforce

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Howard Risher
August 9, 2016

Recently it has become apparent that government is largely ignoring the potential of its best resource to improve performance: its workforce. During the past 20 years, there has been a widening gulf between “people management” practices in the private and public sectors. Anyone who has a chance to interact with employees in a leading company would quickly appreciate they are talking to highly engaged and committed individuals.

Those companies have adopted practices that reflect the old advertising slogan, “People are our most important asset.” There is solid evidence to show the way employees are managed influences their performance. It is almost impossible to miss the new focus—the many lists of the “best places to work,” articles on employee engagement and books on high performance. The common goal is creating a positive work experience that gets the best out of employees.

There is a list of the best federal places to work but nothing similar at the state or local level. Two independent surveys show workforce problems are the No. 1 management challenge. Election candidates frequently promise changes that would exacerbate the problems.

The challenge is multifaceted: the wave of retirements and loss of job knowledge, the low percentage of millennials interested in government careers, the pay freezes, cutbacks in training budgets, lack of advancement opportunities… I could go on.

Gallup recently reported that low employee engagement levels in state and local government contribute to performance problems that cost $100 billion. This is not simply an HR issue. 

The Two Perspectives of Performance

Last year, I had a reason to look closely at the websites for the 15 highest ranked public administration (PA) schools. The courses and faculty publications say a lot about the priorities: workforce concerns are rarely mentioned.

For reasons that are not apparent in PA literature, government’s efforts to improve performance, as well as the research, have focused on high level concerns—executive development, strategic planning and technology. This is consistent with the “manage more like a business” argument and the longstanding goal of increasing efficiency. Too often, training for new managers includes only a cursory discussion of their responsibility for creating a productive work environment.

Today there are two surprisingly separate groups that focus on “performance management.” One deals with management systems, strategy, metrics, KPIs, etc. The other focuses on employees, goal setting, competencies and feedback. Each has its experts, jargon and literature. One focuses on leaders and executives, the other on workforce issues.

For more than 20 years, the PA community has concentrated almost exclusively on the former as part of “new public management” and reinventing government. Agencies have invested heavily in business management practices but the problems continue.

The HR community, in contrast, focuses on employees, although in the public sector the literature includes frequent reports arguing employees explicitly or implicitly are part of the problem. Few public employers would argue their people management practices are truly effective. Antiquated civil service systems continue to impede needed change. 

Evidence from the Private Sector

That contrasts with the attention to workforce issues in the business world. In hindsight, this did not start as an HR initiative. The impetus for change was the 1990-91 recession, which prompted U.S. companies to look for ways to become more competitive in world markets. They eliminated layers of management along with bureaucratic practices, decentralized decision making and, in doing so, gave greater autonomy to employees. The business textbooks were rewritten, dropping old phrases like “span of control” and highlighting new ideas like empowerment.

I know this history because when I developed my first book in 1995, the phrase “high performance” was not in use but was the theme. In all of our exchanges, government was never discussed.

The experience in the private sector is important. There is a wealth of resources that highlight proven practices, including the APA’s recently created website, Center for Organizational Excellence, which “enhance[s] the functioning of individuals, groups, organizations and communities through the application of psychology to a broad range of workplace issues.” We know what contributes to a positive work experience and many of those practices could be adopted in government at minimal cost.

Government is People

Payroll, as well as employee-related expenses (e.g., training), are typically the largest controllable items in agency budgets. Despite that, employees and their performance have gotten very little attention.

The potential for improved performance is surprisingly high; a meta-analysis of productivity studies once concluded changes in the work management paradigm can trigger 30-40 percent increases. Virtually every employee has untapped capabilities.

This is a problem that can be solved but it will require leadership. We need a new “new public management,” one that recognizes, values and encourages workforce contributions. As I write this, The New York Times has posted the article, “The Incalculable Value of Finding a Job You Love.” When someone has a highly satisfying job, they look forward to coming to work each day. There was a time when that was true in government.


Author: Howard Risher has 40 plus years of experience as a consultant to clients in every sector.  He has a BA in psychology from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. from Wharton. He is the co-author with Bill Wilder of the new book, It’s Time for High Performance Government:  Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize and the Public Sector Workforce. You can reach him at [email protected]

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3 Responses to The Forgotten Importance of Government’s Workforce

  1. Pingback: The Forgotten Importance of Government’s Workforce – 21st Century Public Servant | Public Sector Blogs

  2. Pingback: The Forgotten Importance of Government’s Workforce | 21st Century Public Servant

  3. Stephen Gordon Reply

    August 9, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    Thank you for your timely and relevant article!

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