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Seeing Your Government the Way Best Companies Do

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

By Jerry Newfarmer
September 15, 2015

There is the GE Way and the HP Way. There is the Zappos Culture and The Toyota System. These companies have a distinct management style that permeates everything their managers and employees do.

If your local government is like most, though, it lacks an articulated management system similar to those developed by successful companies. Instead, the systems used in local governments have evolved over time, with each new leader adding new ideas. As a result, strategic and work planning often aren’t integrated well with each other or with the management’s communication processes. In turn, those processes have not been thoughtfully identified.

Without an explicit management system, the relationship between the processes and the techniques used to plan and manage work vary, leaving it to individual leaders and staff associates to invent steps as they go along. When a new leader assumes responsibility for any unit, it is necessary to accept and learn “how the place works” and then implement adjustments, whether for the enterprise as a whole or for an individual department. Over time, this results in both a layering effect of management techniques and in a management system in which the interworking of the component parts is not well conceived, and where much is implicit.

Governments that think through their management system, and make it explicit, are more effective and are able to teach it to staff members who are future leaders. Chances are high that you have some or all of the following components:

  • Strategic planning.
  • Business or work planning.
  • Information technology strategic planning.
  • Performance management tracking and reporting system.
  • Employee performance evaluation process.
  • Standing management meetings for normal operations.
  • Governing body support processes, such as agenda preparation or referral follow-up.
  • Budget preparation process, including a multiyear capital budget.
  • Periodic customer satisfaction surveys.
  • Organizational development program, including succession planning.
  • Employee recognition program.

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Each of these activities is part of your management system – whether you think of them in that way or not. Seeing them as individual components unrelated to each other promotes confusion and introduces inefficiencies. Documenting and describing the entire system allows managers to see it as a whole and understand that decisions in one corner of the organization ripple out to affect processes throughout.

Taking the time to consider your government’s entire management system isn’t a complicated exercise. At the end of the exercise, most governments see the following results:

  • A new leader develops an understanding of the whole system more quickly doing it this way than learning each piece one at a time.
  • Senior managers are asked, often for the first time, to help confidentially pinpoint existing weaknesses.
  • The senior management team benefits from the perspective of outside experts to help identify opportunities for improvement.
  • Dimensions of the management system that have never received attention are demystified and discussed.
  • The new leader can shape the future direction of the management system development with a ‘soft hand’ relying on facilitated input from senior managers.

Conducting a fresh review in consultation with each member of your senior management team, individually and together, will reveal the components that are working well, those that are not as important and the “holes” in the system. Managers will also better understand how their work fits into the whole, instead of seeing their department in isolation. Then, as new ideas come along, a leader can consider how they would fit into the existing system, rather than introducing random programs they encounter at conferences and in industry publications.

By making the management system explicit, a leader and his or her staff identify the opportunities for improvement and document it to make it possible for every member of the team to understand it. They can refine and strengthen the system and clarify what it is and how it is to be used. This will create a management system tailored to your organization that can be taught to new managers and used to promote smooth, coordinated functioning throughout the enterprise.

Author: Jerry Newfarmer, a national leader in local government performance management, served as city manager in Fresno, California; San Jose, California; and Cincinnati, Ohio. Newfarmer is founder and president of Management Partners, which helps local governments improve their operations. Newfarmer has led his firm to nationally recognized expertise in municipal development review processes, strategic planning, budgeting and finance and organizational analysis.

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