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Focusing On the Power of Purpose

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

By Howard Risher
July 20, 2018

A subtle shift in the research in the private sector should be relevant to public employers. It’s closely related to the focus on public service motivation (PSM) but, from my perspective, extends the idea of day-to-day organization management.

It’s the idea of “purpose,” or why an organization exists. Organizations with a compelling societal purpose and a few defined priorities always perform at higher levels. Clearly, the purpose of public (as well as NGO) organizations contributes to their attraction to job seekers and in career planning. That is consistent with my understanding of PSM.

First, let me say I am not a researcher; as a consultant I like to say I look to research to solve problems. I have followed the PSM research and have always found the weak linkage to organization performance to be a concern. My interest in research is related to its practical value.

Purpose, in contrast to PSM, has been found to be solidly linked to performance. One of the several consulting firms that has studied the importance of purpose, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), argues there is a “purpose-performance payoff” which they describe as follows:

“Various studies have demonstrated a powerful link between purpose and performance. When employees embrace purpose—when the organization lives it, rather than just proclaims it—business results follow. When organizations view purpose as instrumental to their success and integral to their corporate social responsibility, instead of as a charitable or philanthropic effort, the outcome is a virtuous cycle of business performance and community impact.”

BCG contends—and it’s consistent with my experience—a clearly articulated purpose energizes employees and strengthens their focus on making the organization successful.

That is possibly best illustrated in the movie Apollo 13 (I assume it’s reasonably accurate). When I teach, I use the movie in discussions of high performance organizations. The people involved were clearly committed to returning the space ship safely. They no doubt worked long hours but were anxious to return the next day. Despite the tension and fatigue, my guess is they realized high levels of satisfaction and look back on the experience positively.

There is, at no doubt, any number of similar stories in many government agencies. That would also be the case with successful military campaigns.

Other research suggests many people want to work for an organization which values social and environmental responsibility. Their motivation is aptly described with the cryptic phrase “head and heart” or intrinsic motivation.

This message cannot be stated in superficial slogans or limited to posters. It must be integrated into the day-to-day experience of employees. That shifts the focus to leaders, those involved in internal communications, and to supervisor training.

All of this is unfolding at a time when public agencies are experiencing staffing shortages, the loss of older talent and budget crises. It’s also a time when segments of the public have an increased need for government services.

Although it may be seen as an overstatement, government needs to transform the way work is organized and managed. Practices are outdated, costs need to be reduced and the talents of the workforce need to be better utilized. Research shows the changes adopted in the private sector over the past decade or two can raise performance levels by as much as 30 or 40 percent. The work experience in one of the “best places to work” is far different than in the typical organization of the 1980s or earlier.

My most powerful learning experience was working with the then new federal agency, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), when it was created by merging the District of Columbia parole and probation offices. In the 1990s stories of offenders repeating crimes had been in the headlines. The agencies were seen as failures. A quiet, but highly credible, leader was appointed as the director of the new organization. He convinced his direct reports and agency employees they were going to transform the management of offenders. They defined goals for the new organization, including one to reduce the rate of recidivism by 50 percent over a period of years. For anyone in the field, that is a true stretch goal but the people working in the agency were clearly committed to achieving it.

Important to this transformation was a radical redefinition of the jobs. When it was a District operation, the parole and probation officers sat behind a desk, checking off boxes to confirm they met with offenders. The appraisal of their performance was based on a check-off-the-box form. It was all close to meaningless. The new strategy had them going into the neighborhoods to meet with a spouse, ministers, etc. It was a much more proactive role and the now Community Supervision Officers (CSC) readily committed to the new strategy.

Today CSOSA has a series of well-articulated goals that define the agency’s purpose. The strategic goals make it clear why the agency exists.

  • Decrease Criminal Activity among the Supervised Population by Increasing the Number of Offenders Who Successfully Complete Supervision
  • Promote Successful Reintegration into Society by Linking Offenders with Preventive Interventions to Address Identified Behavioral Health, Employment, and/or Housing Needs
  • Support the Fair Administration of Justice by Providing Timely and Accurate Information to Criminal Justice Decisionmakers

That project and subsequent consulting work has convinced me that when the circumstances support it, employees will commit to performing at significantly higher levels. Among the key issues are:

  • A shared understanding of the organization’s purpose. Successful transformations require a compelling understanding of what the organization needs to achieve and the reasons why it’s necessary and important. As with CSOSA, it’s important to have a limited number stretch goals that clearly linked to achieving the agency’s mission.
  • A well planned, continuing communication strategy. Everyone needs to know what their organization plans to accomplish and regular updates on how it’s performing. That’s where metrics play a vital role. A weakness in government’s use of metrics is that they tend to rely on a ‘laundry list’ of far too many to provide focus. There is a reason why the experts in goal setting insist on limiting goals to no more than five or six. Communication should be planned to win employee ‘hearts and minds’.
  • The skills to plan and manage organization change. Changes like CSOSA or the radical changes announced by the Trump administration have to be managed as organizational change. When jobs are redefined, reporting relationships changed, or a new direction mandated, resistance is almost inevitable unless it’s managed effectively. Public employers have several barriers that make change difficult including civil service regulations.
  • Not the last but easily the most important is leadership from the highest levels. This may not be an elected official since they rarely have change management experience but he or she needs to identify a truly influential individual who can concentrate on the transformation. The CSOSA director was someone who articulated a vision and convinced others to follow him. Leadership cannot be dictated.

If my experience is meaningful, employees must be visibly involved in planning and carrying out initiatives where success depends on employee buy-in — which includes any changes to their work experience. They need to be trusted and expected to develop answers to operational problems. No one knows better what problems impede their performance. And where they believe their ideas are valued, they enjoy the challenge. It starts with a compelling purpose.


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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