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The Public Manager – Ridicule or Respect

By: Don Busi

Most citizens assume there are certain inherent characteristics imbedded within the public service sector work environment that foster the notion that most public career managers are less capable or less effective than their private sector counterparts. Such assumptions are not new.

Some of the most common notions involve three areas, for which many citizens assume public career managers have little involvement or face no immediate pressures: money, competition, and corrective personnel practices. A further description of these notions follows:

(1)  There is money to be spent, and since it is not “the executive’s or manager’s,” there is little concern to spend the money wisely. Other “related notions:  Government does not have “to worry about making payroll;” and one more, “in Government there is no bottom line.”

(2)  There is no competition; hence, no motivation to deliver a quality product at the lowest price.

(3)  Personnel practices in the public sector are lax. Supervisors don’t supervise. Public employees do not work with a sense of urgency, and besides, most public sector supervisors do not have the resources, the authority and the policies/procedures in place to effectively manage a productive workforce.


“Show Me The Money”

In the federal government, a manager or an employee, with financial approval authority anywhere in this process, is assigned a very special accountability. What I find so neat about the federal government is if you are an employee or manager in the “money spending chain,” you are personally liable if there is a screw-up. The “Rules” say in effect: Treat this money as your own (my words). If you lose it by not following the Rules, then you, personally, pay back Uncle Sam. So spend it wisely AND correctly. In fact, if you would receive in writing a direct order from your boss (even the biggest boss in the land) to approve an erroneous federal payment (e.g., approve an electronic payment or sign the check for a payment that you know is erroneous), and you do sign it, you cannot later claim in your defense (even with the written documentation) that there were mitigating circumstances.  No extenuating circumstances can mitigate your obligation and permit you to justify authorizing such a payment, not even if you are directed by you know who.

I recognize that there is a big, big difference between the public manager’s focus on costs and the private business executive’s focus on securing capital. Admittedly, I never had to worry about negotiating a loan with a bank or meeting certain loan restrictions and covenants. The source of funds (the budget) was funded at a stated level and for a period of time.  Most governmental units are “cost” not revenue centers.


“There’s no competition in Government!”

So where are the competitors? In my federal career, I can attest to the existence of a real healthy, dog-eat-dog competitive environment between government entities. Depending on a public agency’s mission, there could be a number of predators. In 1972 the US Civil Service Commission “took jobs” from the US Postal Service when USCSC assumed responsibility for giving federal civil service exams. USCSC personnel administered tests using part-time clerical personnel, still at the local Post Offices, with obvious personnel cost savings (part-time, clerical wage versus a Postal Worker).  Since then several recruiting and staffing functions previously performed by the Office of Personnel Management are now performed by individual federal agencies. Over history federal hiring practices have shifted from decentralized to centralized and now back to a decentralized approach, obviously due to bureaucratic/agency politics and the Executive Branch’s efforts to trim the size of government.

In particular, with DoD being so large, there are many opportunities to take advantage of predatory, competitive behavior within this large Department, since each branch of military service often performs similar administrative functions.  Defense Contracts Administration Service, an agency of about 20,000 employees in 1976, was organized into several “Regional Offices” across the country; each Regional Office having it own administrative functions such as budget, HR, contractor payment, IT, etc.  Washington Headquarters decided that a consolidation of Regional Offices was in order, and only the most efficient Regional Offices would remain.  For months each Regional Office “competed” with the others by preparing position papers, providing mounds of statistics, etc., all for the purpose of arguing that it should remain. In 1980, the workload from the Chicago Office was consolidated into the Cleveland Office. Efficiencies were gained; jobs eliminated.

This exact scenario happened again in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s. Headquarters Washington announced again that further reductions were in order and Regional Contract Offices around the country again were to be reduced. I was Program Budget Officer at the time and so each remaining Regional Office was motivated to do more with less. Top management defended workload and resourcing decisions and developed scenarios arguing that it had the best plan to assume increased workload with the least amount of resources.  Management presentations were presented to Headquarters, and we were always geared to present the Cleveland Office in the best light when compared to other regions. The final result: the number of regional offices were reduced to five (and then eventually to three); the Cleveland Region was gone.

Competition within Defense Finance and Accounting (DFAS) was even more intense than within Defense Contracting. The marching orders were: consolidate DoD pay systems into one—have one pay organization for all Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Forces personnel. This made/makes sense. So what grew out of this was a culture of intense competition between the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine payment and accounting centers. Managers in all the pay and accounting centers spent many hours contributing to “data calls” for flow charts, procedures, and workload statistics. Hours were spent in “cook off” sessions where the system of each service was compared to the others. This “cook-off” process occurred/occurs over several years and involved many types of pay and accounting systems. (Understand that there are several discrete and vastly different pay systems within DoD to pay its employees and customers: to pay military retirees, to pay active duty and reserve personnel, to pay National Guard, and to pay defense contractors.)


“You can’t fire a government employee!”

Not true. It is not unusual for an employee to lose his or her job for not reporting to work on time, if a trained and well-versed supervisor reacts quickly and “keeps book” on the employee.   As an Employee Relations Specialist, I have participated in many disciplinary actions for tardiness, absences, sexual harassment, and substance abuse with many of supervisors for dozens of employees. These involved employees at all levels—clerical, technical, and professional. Many of these actions were effected in a union environment. Most often poor employees aren’t fired; they leave or they retire, especially if the supervisor and HR are competent to address a continuing problem with progressively serious remedies.  I’ve had a disciplinary action against an employee, and then worked on a disciplinary action against the employee’s supervisor. The action against the supervisor was initiated by the Director of the unit against the supervisor for not taking timely disciplinary action against the employee. Both actions were effected without any problem.

I have asked several “associates” in the private sector how are behavioral issues and poor performance handled. The several that I have talked to: there is no table of offenses… a problem…. call HR….call the Legal Staff…..can take months…..dump the “bad apple” onto someone else in the organization…..tolerate the poor performance if you….move to the person to where he/she can’t do damage.

One last word on personnel practices in the public sector. Many of my private sector associates think that all public employees are in strong unions and that the unions control the work environment. Just not so. I often try to explain that each level of government is different, and that whether at the state, county or federal level, there will be great differences in personnel practices. A city municipality might be under a very strong contract that prescribes salaries, workload practices, etc. I have one very smart and knowledgeable friend practically tell me I was a liar when I asserted that federal workers’ salaries are not part of a union contract. He said he heard otherwise on public radio!!  I assured him that most federal salaries are not part of a negotiated agreement. Finally, I never ever worked with a union official, at any level, who was brash, discourteous or unprofessional.


Don Busi, recently retired from federal service in 2009, but started his federal career with the US Civil Service Commission in HR. He then worked for the Department of Defense, specifically Defense Contracts Administration Service in HR and then as Program Budget Officer. He then moved on to Defense Accounting and Finance Service in various capacities. His final position before he retired was Deputy Director, Centralized Disbursing. He is now a part-time lecturer at several community colleges in the Cleveland area.

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