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Re-Emphasizing Employee Development in Public Administration

David Allen Hines

“Let the public service be a proud and lively career.” These words, spoken by President Kennedy in his first State of the Union Address in January 1961 set a tone for public administration that should ring as true today. But unfortunately, it all too often doesn’t.

Public administration professionalism has successfully led to attracting and retaining some very intelligent and hard-working people in government. But all too often, these people’s skills are never fully utilized and the public sees the blank face of bureaucracy because they are led by managers who are educated, experienced and highly competent, but who lack the ability to lead and inspire people.

Unlike most public administrators, I came to the profession after serving in elected office as a town councilmember and in appointed executive office as a town administrator. I also served on the Board of Directors of a public library. In those capacities, my chief skill set was the need to develop a program that I hoped would achieve good for the jurisdiction and convince people to believe in it and carry it out. The experiences were so worthwhile, that I decided to make a career out of a professional position in government. I obtained an MPA and upon the conclusion of my elected and appointed service, took a position as a government budget manager.

When I took the position, what most surprised me, and eight years later, what still does, is how many incredibly interesting and talented government managers there are who have absolutely no idea how to motivate and lead their staffs.

Time and again, I have seen very good people stumble upon assuming a management position. And even within staffs, more often than not, I have seen that rank and file employees often unintentionally become frustrated or achieve less than they might simply because it seems like they have never been trained on how to work as part of a team.

This is one area where I think business does a far better job than the public sector. Now true, businesses are often insane to rush to follow the newest management fad and pay inordinate amounts for trendy training of a dubious quality. But, at the end of the day, that businesses focus heavily on developing leadership skills for managers and employees who work as a team–much more than the government sector–cannot be denied.

Master of public administration degree programs do a great job of training in technical skills, advanced analysis, public law, theory, and human resource regulations. But the end result too often is a highly skilled individual who does not know how to inspire, lead or manage people, or an employee who doesn’t know the best way to maximize collaboration with peers.

As a result, government often fails to maximize the potential of its employees. President Kennedy, in a 1961 message to the federal workforce, said, “Government service must be attractive enough to lure our most talented people. It must be challenging enough to call forth our greatest efforts. It must be interesting enough to retain their services. It must be satisfying enough to inspire single-minded loyalty and dedication. It must be important enough to each individual to call forth reserves of energy and enthusiasm.”

To achieve that, our government managers must be trained to lead, inspire and manage their staffs.

I enjoy undertaking sophisticated financial analysis. I enjoy writing policy papers and communications. One would think in my current position, that is what I spend most of my time doing. But the reality is, that I spend most of each day interacting with my staff. I ensure that everyone knows what they need to do, why, and when, while being careful not to micro-manage. On my wall, I have General George Patton’s oft-quoted remark, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

When there are problems, I flush them out and we work together to solve them. If unexpected events develop, I plunge in to help. I’m always on the outlook for an interesting article or book to share.  I insist on regular team meetings and work hard to ensure everyone participates so that there is a constant team mindset. I have been pleased to see the results. A group of very diverse, yet all highly educated professional people work well together and respond timely, proactively, with interest, and enthusiasm, and have established credibility. Now that’s not to say you aren’t going to find me hunkered down in my office doing a regression analysis or poring over a budget proposal. But I see my job as more than that.

While there are managers who do a better job than I can, I have seen so many more stumble and fail due to their lack of background in leadership and employee development. I was fortunate that I came to this role having previously gained much experience and interest in building teams and managing and developing staff during my time in elected and appointed office. But I know plenty of folks with MPAs serving in government management positions who have no education in this area. And if they go to seek it, they face obstacles. Approval is easily granted for example to take a training class on advanced budget analysis. But if they ask to take a class on leadership or motivation, they are given a hard time. “Why do you need to take a class on that?” is too often the response.

Integrating education on leadership, motivation, team-building and employee development need to be added as a component of all MPA programs. Furthermore, when hiring managers, government needs to ensure the folks they hire possess these skills as well as the technical skills. And when promoting from within, new managers must be trained in employee development just as much as their rote technical skills. Finally, annual training should include classes that foment team-development and individual motivation as much as updating and enhancing technical skills.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader,” President John Quincy Adams once remarked. Step back and see if that is the outcome of your management and also how your staff views you.

ASPA member David Allen Hines is deputy director for budget administration in the Office of Budget and Planning of the Government of the District of Columbia. He previously served as municipal councilmember in Kingston, PA, and town manager for Edwardsville, PA. Email: [email protected]

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