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One Person, One Moment, One Conversation: Improving the Perception of Public Institutions

By Laree Kiely

Recently in an airport lounge, I witnessed a problem that I see all too often–a failure to see how one’s work efforts fit into a larger context. A woman working there had wheeled a cart full of magazines into the lounge and was putting them out on the counter for the customers to pick up and read. The cart was overfull–it looked like she had wanted to make only one trip. Because of where she was standing and where she had placed the cart, the customers couldn’t reach the counter. One by one, they would try to take a magazine off of the cart instead. Every time it happened, and it happened frequently, she would (without any eye contact) very sternly say “Do not touch the cart, sir.  Sir, do not touch the cart!”  It was probably because she was worried about the magazines being slippery and ending up with an avalanche. That was my guess. The customer would stand there, looking a little awkward and wait for her to finish. However, she was being meticulous, placing them on the counter perfectly spaced and taking her time. Eventually, the customer would give up and walk away with nothing to read. I watched her do this over and over again with a kind of weird fascination–sort of like a train wreck.

It was an old tune playing one more time. You know the one. It’s called “I did my job.” While working very hard to get our “work” done, it is easy to take our eye off of the ball and forget “why” we are doing the work and for whom.

So here is my point. The first and most important way to the public’s heart is to remember they are our job.  What our consumers want is to be served effectively and efficiently.  I admit, sometimes the individuals we serve are grumpy, needy, not willing to do their part, don’t get “it,” etc.  But they are the reason we exist.  Without these folks, we don’t have a job.

change 2My airport lady hadn’t been reminded or maybe she had never been told that her job was not the magazines. It was the person who wanted to read the magazines. And this lands right in the lap of leadership. So does all public perception. If we are viewed badly, if we are painted with the same brush as all public servants, if people come to us with an attitude, it all lands back in the lap of leadership.  So what is a leader to do?  Here are some starting points:

  1. Create an environment where employees can contribute value to the consumer (no matter how indirectly) and where they feel valued and in that order. Why do I put this first? Because unhappy employees and disengaged employees are one of the main causes of an unhappy consumer. Another reason might be that when they come to be served, they get bad service or what feels like impersonal service. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about public or private sector. If employees are not engaged, our consumers will feel it. A leader’s job is to ensure that employees have a positive sense of where they fit into the larger picture and how their contribution adds up to a satisfied public.
  2. Develop your people. One of the biggest concerns today, especially in government, is the lack of life-long education and development for public employees. It has been widely reported that our job skills become obsolete every three years or less. If our learning is not keeping up with the rate of change, we will fall woefully behind. This is felt by our consumers. I am not talking about sending them off to expensive training programs. I am proposing that leaders do some of the developing of their folks. We learn by seeing, doing and conversing with the people we work with, not just sitting in classrooms. This is done through coaching, not criticism nor once a year performance reviews. Every work group has meetings. Use the meeting to learn rather than just dispense information. Talk about customers. Bring up the tough ones. But rather than complain about them, discuss ways to handle them better.
  3. Revisit how you are doing things. When we add new tasks to our plate, we have to take some off.  One definition of a bureaucracy is an organization that has added new things to do and new ways to do things, but hasn’t gotten rid of the old. Limit the hoops one has to jump through.
  4. Ask your consumers. One reason why folks might have a negative perception is they think public agencies don’t have a clue about what matters to them or that the public sector is out of touch with their daily realities. Ask people how they feel about how they are being served. Face-to-face, not in a survey or a ballot box. Customer satisfaction comes from good relationships no matter how brief. Relationships are with people, not pieces of paper.
  5. Be a facilitator rather than an obstructionist. We have all felt the “heavy hand of government.”  It’s not like we can go anywhere else for the needs that the public arena meets. But bullying people just because we’re the biggest, baddest boy in town does not enhance the public’s image of us. I remember the most recent government contract I negotiated. The purchasing agents from the agency could easily have bullied me–there was no doubt that they had the upper hand in terms of “power.” But these folks were looking at the bigger picture. They asked different questions that were focused on why we were meeting; what we were hoping to accomplish; how what we were doing was going to enhance the consumer; how we were going to show the return on their investment. It was amazingly refreshing to focus on the consumer rather than the contract. We have seen very positive evidence of this in a significant number of public organizations including government, nonprofit and education. When we think of being facilitative, it is easy to think of the ones who need to be most helpful. But then we think about some, like police departments, who should be obstructionist. They work with criminals. Catching the bad guys is their job. Not really. Seeing a police department’s job as managing crime is another example of “I did my job!”  Police departments all over the country have realized that their real job is serving the community. Arresting the bad guys is only one way they do that.  That shift in focus has significantly changed the way the public views their law enforcement partners.
  6. Educate the public. The private sector has been learning that, in many cases, educating their consumer goes a lot further and can have a much more positive effect than expensive marketing campaigns. This helps people know what you can do and what you can’t do before they get frustrated.

There are many other ways we can enhance the way the public views our agencies. Big splashy public relations campaigns will fall flat and the public will see through that right away. Their impression of us starts at home. One moment, one conversation, one person at a time. It’s true. Mostly the public cares about, “What have you done for me lately.” But they are paying our salaries, after all.
Laree Kiely, Ph.D., President, the Kiely Group.  Dr. Kiely served on the faculty at USC for over 15 years.  In addition to currently leading the Kiely Group, she serves as faculty for leadership programs at Duke CE, UCLA, USC, Thunderbird, and Ivey (Toronto).  The Kiely Group specializes in Leadership and Organizational Impact.  Please send your comments, questions, and stories to us at:  [email protected].

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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.

One Response to One Person, One Moment, One Conversation: Improving the Perception of Public Institutions

  1. Julie Ann Racino Reply

    January 10, 2014 at 8:57 am

    Leadership and organizational change have been proven as essential ingredients for decades in studies in the US. Leadership can range from political to field to community leadership, and in public administration, administrative leadership.

    For example, leading organizations supporting people with disabilities in the community (as part of deinstitutionalization and community development) were described in a national study (Taylor, Bogdan, & Racino, 1991)available on amazon.com.

    Public administrative leadership was and is required to make these services a reality in communities worldwide.

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