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Today, adequately performing in public service is more important than at any time in the last 40 years. With perceptions from the public generally negative about government, the federal civil service must make internal improvements to improve public relations, enhance internal cooperation and contribute to improved efficiency, all in an atmosphere of sustained cutbacks of resources.
One model is to look at existing management and supervision functions. The act of managing in public service may be the critical component to improving public service. Behaviors and the interaction of supervisors and managers with their staff is a critical element for the average employee’s perception of how the work is done. That interaction tells him or her how important performing the work is, what part it plays in attaining the goal and provides a real-time connection to job performance ratings. Most offices are composed of the standard top-down administrative apparatus, calling for work to be reported up the chain for ultimate approval. Employees have to see that their work is used constructively and that their performance fits directly into the goals of the organization. Achieving this degree of transparency is mostly up to managers.
In many executive agencies, a middle manager’s function and purpose often consists of one or both of the following: 1) leading staffs to produce policy, 2) putting together the myriad programs that make for policy implementation. Managers must remain adept at performing their functions without being distracted by concerns about issues over which they have very limited control. In present day government, line-item budget cuts, sequestration, adapting to new requirements such as telework and learning about corporate-wide IT changes can be distracting.
Managers must deal with these distractions and still forge the necessary strategies to accomplish organizational goals. “Walk-around managers must show by example that the exigency calls for a ‘wartime’ mentality of special perseverance and grim humor,” wrote Charles Goodsell in his article, “Public Administration as Its Own Steward in Times of Partisan Deadlock and Fiscal Stress” in the Public Administration Review. When the middle manager’s attention is totally taken up by uncontrolled forces, however, focus suffers and many managers who may have the capacity to lead do not. In turn, this raises the importance of this leadership role to an even more critical level since middle managers are looked upon for guidance from their staff. Leading while managing is the subtle, but necessary ability to enhance performance (and production) through day-to-day interaction with many individuals, including subordinates, superiors, and peers inside the organization and outside it.
No federal agency is immune from legitimate demands by the public for efficiency of implementation and operation. In fact, shortcuts to accomplishing goals are demanded during times of cutback and during subsequent attempts at returning to normalcy. If the middle manager does not lead in efforts to accomplish work goals, then it is likely no one will since the middle manager is perfectly positioned to observe both the changes and the staff’s ability and capacity to change.
The public is the recipient, for better or worse, of the programs and policies implemented by these agencies. The overall effect of rule-making and policy implementation requires an administrative ability to focus on the work and an ability to see above the daily grind with a ferocious focus on execution. Public perceptions that government programs “can’t get it right” feed into negative perceptions of government’s apparent inability to perform adequately in promoting solutions to many critical issues, problems and events that impact them.
The public servant caught in the current dynamic situation has to seek out viable partners, listen closely to other points of view and have a sense of purpose. Skill in human relations, individual interaction, and integration of differences between and among personnel while producing the work are required by both the supervisor and the staff for consistent programmatic success.
The importance of human relations such as empowerment, trust and collaboration does not just augment these areas, but is the foundation for accomplishment. Keeping up with changes and motivating other individuals are what the manager can do to garner support from his staff, facilitate accomplishment of the work and make it all fit into a coherent whole that upper management can recognize as advancing the purpose of the agency. For example, individual leadership is demonstrated by empowering other people in the workplace and avoiding a stovepipe approach that makes an individual with experience unwilling or disinclined to relate organizational facts and cultural referents to a newer employee. Trust comes with the ability of the manager to emphasize mutual benefits to both seasoned employees and the newer employee. By being empowered, the newer employee is much more quickly on the path to understanding the culture and to developing her own ability to communicate successfully with higher authority, thus reducing the fear and apprehension that sometimes accompanies increases in responsibility.
If the mid-level manager cannot or will not make leadership a top priority for programmatic execution, then the public they serve will suffer as a result. Leadership, public approval and efficiencies of operation are the exoskeleton for accomplishing the “game plan” of the organization, and today they are essential elements for effective bureaucratic function. In turn, human relations, individual attention to each other and a sharpened sense of the mission, all focused on the actual work itself, comprise the inner skeleton for the manager and staff to work together and accomplish goals during difficult times. Without attention paid to all these elements, and personal execution of each of them, the middle level manager will not obtain the quality of work that is required. They, along with their staffs, will continue to underperform, resulting in continuing failure of the government to institute needed approaches to increasing demands for objective, effective and efficient action. According to Abraham Zaleznik in his article, “Real Work,” published in the Harvard Business Review, accomplishing the goal through communicating, paying individual attention to every member of the group and performing real work will ensure improvements to the quality and results of public service.
Today’s conditions for organizational accomplishment have changed. Some of these changes include a greater emphasis on productivity and competence in a diminished-resource environment and demonstrated leadership in getting along with the staff. This reality demands managerial performance that can create the right conditions, provide transparency and earn sustained trust.
Author: Dr. Kenneth B. Malmberg is a program manager at the United States Coast Guard Headquarters.