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Employee Ownership in the Public Sector

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

By Thomas E. Poulin
May 22, 2023

A frequently stated goal of leader-managers in all settings, including the public sector, is to have employees take ownership of their work. Purportedly, this will contribute to greater pride in accomplishing their activities, and a sense of achievement for doing all they possibly could to maximize outcomes. This might be so, but the question is why should they feel like owners when they are treated as employees?

To clarify this question, it might help to define the roles. Owners create the vision for the enterprise, write the goals, set the objectives, acquire the resources and coordinate all activities to remain on task. Any profit beyond operational expenses go to them, so the greater the gross profit of the business, the more they personally benefit. Employees are hired to use their talents as best they can, with the resources provided, working under the oversight and direction of management, to complete the objectives provided, seeking to achieve the goals created by the owners. They are paid a wage or salary, and frequently receive no substantive benefits for “going all in,’ even in instances where their contributions lead to highly positive outcomes for the organization.

Clearly, these definitions are archetypes. The reality is owners and employees might represent differing ends of a spectrum, but this depends on agency leadership. Some organizations seek to engage employees in the setting of objectives and operational planning, and some organizations do provide meaningful rewards for employees who perform in an exceptional manner. Some—not all. Other organizations act in a more rigid manner, focusing on hierarchical authorities and roles. This does not mean employees are ill-treated or poorly compensated, but they are not engaged in substantive decision making. They are expected to do their jobs—to do what they are told.

Recently, in another professional forum, this argument was framed as “homeowners, renters and squatters.” Employees who acted as homeowners were praised, while those typed as renters and squatters were degraded. Aside from the troubling aspects of public employees questioning the value and integrity of others premised solely upon socio-economic statuses, more concerning were that the attacks were personal, not professional. Rather than speaking about how assuming ownership for their work might contribute to achieving greater outcomes and a sense of personal pride, the focus was on the lack of character and integrity of those who had not assumed ownership.

This is indicative of a toxic mindset; the unstated beliefs that the leaders of the agency are strong leaders, and those who fail willingly to follow them are flawed, or that those who hold differing values and beliefs than the leaders are poison to the agency, as only the values and behaviors of the leaders are valid. Seeking to change hearts and minds by attacking those to whom the message is directed is futile.

How might owners support employees assuming some level of ownership in the organization? First, accept you are not making them full owners. In the end, they are an invaluable resource for the organization, but they are not creating the mission or the goals, nor are they able to marshal the raw materials and resources needed to perform. This is done by the owners. In the case of public agencies, this is done by elected or appointed officials. Public sector employees understand this, and are not fooled by anyone suggesting they are full partners in the process.

Second, accept that creating a sense of true ownership means leader-managers must limit their control, yielding some authority to their employees. General George Patton once remarked to the effect “tell people what to do, but not how to do it. They will surprise you with their creativity.” Most public sector employees would like to have greater control over the quality of their work. This means providing them meaningful opportunities to set performance objectives, develop plans to accomplish tasks and to control their work processes.

Many years ago, a television commercial asked, “what would the world look like if everyone had to sign their work?” It is an interesting question to ponder. The commercial suggested if everyone had to sign their work—to take responsibility for their output—they might take greater pride in each task, regardless of how small. Moreover, the commercial suggested each employee would find the means to be creative and take control over their task, taking pride in it and seeking to achieve excellence. If public-sector leaders—the owners—do not provide some means for their employees to feel like they have a meaningful role in defining excellence, in planning their own work, in crafting an outcome in which they may take pride and in providing some substantive benefit for excellent performance, they have no right to believe employees should act as owners. If you only hire them to do what they are told, you get what you paid for, and this is unlikely to be the levels of service quality, quantity and responsiveness the community expects.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, IPMA-CP is a training and development consultant and serves as Senior Doctoral Adjunct Faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. Prior to this, he served over 30 years in local government and 10 years as a university professor. He may be reached at [email protected]

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