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Government Needs to Join the Workforce Revolution

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

By Howard Risher
January 19, 2020 

The transformation in the way work is organized and managed started in the private sector three decades ago. It’s a radical shift from the us-vs-them philosophy that dominated work management into the 1990s. In healthcare, the pandemic accelerated the pace of change. In both sectors the end result is the same—in leading organizations, employees are now expected to work free of the traditional close, “Do-as-your-told,” supervision.

The result is important: the changes benefit employers and employees. Performance is higher, costs are lower and the work experience enhances the employer’s brand as an employer. In both sectors, the most successful organizations are far more likely to have incorporated the practices shown to support high performance. The changes are reflected in the descriptions of the, “Great places to work.”

Significantly, it has impacted even low skill jobs. Wegmans, a northeast supermarket chain, is both a, “Great Place to Work,”—#3 on the Fortune 2020 list—and 1st or 2nd on lists of the nation’s best supermarkets.

The lessons learned are well documented and available to all employers in thousands of books, articles and websites.

Looking ahead to the end of the pandemic, public employers at all levels will experience staffing problems—skills shortages, loss of job knowledge to retirements, burnout, remote working, etc. Technology is not a near term solution. Companies and hospitals have proven the value of new management models.

However, the static work environment common in government has proven to be a barrier to change. A report from the National Academy of Public Administration used the phrase, “Culture of compliance,” to describe the work environment. Top-down control constrains frontline decisionmaking. A lack of trust inhibits the acceptance of new organizational practices. There are few champions for change. It makes government less agile and slower to react to new problems.

Performance in service organizations—an apt description of the typical government agency—is dependent on employees. However, the common management style and culture precludes the use of their full capabilities, making the work experience less satisfying. Change is needed to raise performance levels.

Part of the problem is that newly elected officials seldom have meaningful experience managing large groups of employees. Running for office is typically spawned by an interest in public policy issues. When former business executives are elected, like former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, it can lead to reform. David Walker, who reformed the Government Accountability Office, is another example. But their numbers are small. Culture change will be difficult in the absence of high level leadership.

The academic community is unfortunately complicit. Degree programs and courses focus on the core public policy issues (e.g., law enforcement) along with public administration practices. Numerous courses touch on management—e.g., policy analysis, finance, quantitative methods—but unfortunately, the policies associated with effective workforce management are missing from the curriculums. The pandemic and staffing shortages have heightened the importance of that practical body of knowledge.

That’s reflected in the research and writing of experts as well. A search on Amazon found over 40,000 books on “high performance” but when the words “in government” are added the number drops to 85. Many of those have irrelevant titles like Chinese Naval Shipbuilding and High-Technology Competitiveness. The thread common to business journals and books is understanding and promoting practical strategies to create high performance organizations.

There is of course the research on Public Service Motivation but the focus is on career choice. The evidence linking PSM to performance is weak. Now a new thread has surfaced in business, “Purpose-driven organizations,” which sounds very similar to PSM and suggests the appeal of working in government is not unique. Its importance is discussed in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, “Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization.” The article suggests ideas to solidify the commitment to purpose.

The early evidence shows emphasizing an organization’s purpose can heighten employee engagement, increasing employee effort and productivity. It can also improve customer satisfaction and loyalty. Movies about agencies like the FBI and NASA have depicted the importance of purpose.

There have been success stories. Tennessee is the most recent. It would be advantageous to document and promote successful change. In the private sector, the focus is on best practices, not failures. One idea is creating a government, “Best places to work,” website.

Where management is reluctant to move forward, employee associations can push for change. In healthcare, an initiative of the American Nurses Association provides a model for what employees can do to advocate the changes for a more positive work experience. In the mid-1980s the ANA started the Magnet Hospital Recognition Program for Excellence in Nursing Services. It has triggered, “Greater autonomy for nurses at the bedside,” and increased education and development through their careers. The changes benefit the hospitals, nurses and patients.

The expanded ANA role could be adopted by any employee group. The goals are clearly different from the traditional union goals. Labor-management relationships in government too often fall back on the us-vs-them mindset that prevents needed change.

With newly elected leaders, this is the time to reconsider how work is organized and managed. The COVID-19 crisis prompted change; experts believe remote working is the future. Tennessee started with agency heads soliciting ideas for improving services to citizens. It’s important to build support for change. Laws may need to change. The academic community could play an invaluable role.


Author: Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on workforce management. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of FEPCA and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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