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Shared Governance

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

By Howard Risher
August 25, 2017

Employees want to contribute to their employer’s success – or, more accurately, they will remain committed if they feel valued and respected. In startups, where there is little or no history and the promise of important achievements, their enthusiasm can be almost palpable. They know what’s working and what’s not. They are in the best position to tackle problems as they emerge. They take pride in working for a respected organization.

I was reminded of that recently in working with a client task force. They were committed to the success of the project and agonized over the decisions. In my consulting, I’ve worked with a number of similar groups.

Years ago, in the mid-1970s I worked with a company that opened a new plant in Dove, DE. Self-managed teams ran the plant – no supervisors. Then it was a radical idea, possibly the first ‘experiment’ with the idea in the U.S. I interviewed several employees working in the plant. They were solidly committed to making it a success. One thanked God for the chance to work there. Another stated, “There is no way we’ll allow a union in here.” Today, of course, many employees work autonomously, sometimes many miles from their “manager.”

At the time, I realized self-management triggered extremely high levels of engagement, made the team far more responsive to work-related problems than if they had to call in “experts”, and reduced operational costs by eliminating a level of management. The plan was to eliminate all staff functions including Human Resources. Everybody was on board until the day the machines broke down and they had to call in engineers from corporate headquarters. My involvement ended before that happened.

Shared Governance in Higher Education

That made me think of faculty senates and the shared governance model entrenched in higher education. It’s been years since I have been on a faculty so I decided to look for help. As expected, the Chronicle had an excellent article, “Exactly What is ‘Shared Governance’?”. The author, Gary Olson, states it “gives voice (but not necessarily ultimate authority) to concerns common to all constituencies as well as to issues unique to specific groups.”

Olson concluded with the statement:

“the key to genuine shared governance is broad and unending communication. When various groups are kept in the loop and understand what developments are occurring within [the organization] and when they are invited to participate as true partners, the [organization] prospers.” (Italics added)

He’s correct of course, the organization benefits, but there is an additional, unstated reason. Another higher education practice best illustrates that reason – the reliance on employee committees to solve problems. My experience is limited to planning new salary programs which is commonly delegated to a group composed of employees who will be affected by the new program. It’s not brain surgery and with guidance they can develop solid answers. The importance is that they ‘own’ the new program; they explain and defend it to co-workers; they are committed to developing answers that solve problems. They are far more effective in “selling” the changes to co-workers than management.

Shared governance is also prominent in health care. It’s been central to the efforts of nurses to gain more control over their workplace for more than three decades. A “Professional Governance” questionnaire developed to help nurses evaluate their workplace was translated into nine languages. Significantly it’s been reported that “the vast majority of the hospitals that have achieved ‘magnet status’ [which recognizes a hospital offers excellent nursing care] use shared governance as their structural model for sustaining professional nursing practice.”

Shared Governance in Germany

The shared governance philosophy is deeply entrenched and has a long history in Germany. Employees there have the legal right to elect representatives (usually union leaders) for almost half of a company’s board of directors. It’s known as co-determination. Law also entitles German workers to form Works Councils at their workplace with regularly scheduled meetings to discuss work-related issues with management. Together the laws have contributed to largely cooperative labor-management relations.

Today the German economy is possibly the strongest in the world. Their trade balance is consistently positive while ours is $700+ billion in the red. Public debt in Germany is 70 percent of GDP; public debt in the U.S. is over 100 percent of GDP.

An expert on the German economy and German labor relations, American University’s Stephen Silvia, confirmed the “Council idea is highly regarded by employers as well as employees. This is true across the political spectrum in Germany.” Another expert, Cornell’s Lowell Turner, argues “the German model is going strong, and generally credited as an important factor in sustained German economic success.”

There is a separate but similar statutory provision providing for staff councils in Germany’s government.

The Works Council idea has a lot in common with the nurses in hospitals and the faculty in higher education. The Councils provide a forum where both sides can communicate and where the ideas of workers are respected. They give workers a stake in the success of their employer.

Shared Governance “Fits” Government

In the U.S., the story in both the public and private sectors has been very different. The traditional control-oriented management philosophy emerged in the early factories. Through most of the last century, it was the exact opposite of the Works Council idea. Employees were expected “to do their job;” management did all the thinking.

It was the need to gain a degree of control and fair treatment which triggered the interest in unionization. That history is well documented. When the initial public sector labor laws were enacted, the ‘us-vs-them’ mindset was extended to the new labor-management relationships.

But unions are steadily losing influence. The leading companies today manage their employees as assets, not as costs. The interest in engagement highlights the relatively new understanding that employees have a lot to contribute. Those Best Places to Work are not all flashy, high tech companies. One that is consistently high on the lists is a supermarket chain: Wegmans.

employees-1704059_640We know from studies of the Best Places what employees want – common to those lists are “a say in decisions that affect them, open two-way communication, high levels of cooperation and reduced roadblocks to innovation”.

For government, it should be easier to create a ‘best places’ work experience. In contrast to businesses, there is no “bottom line” other than serving the mission effectively. The interest in public service is shared by managers and employees alike. The self-interest motivation that influences leaders in business is not the same barrier to collaboration.

Solid research over decades confirms employees are more satisfied when they are empowered, that is to say, they have some level of control over decisions that affect their work experience. The American Psychological Association endorses that idea. Employees who work under close supervisor control report significantly more exhaustion after work, trouble awakening in the morning, higher depression and anxiety. They are also less productive.

The recommendation is to encourage workers to form small, local advisory groups and issue a policy requiring local managers to meet regularly, at least quarterly, to discuss employee ideas for changes to improve operations and the work experience. They will become a valuable resource.

Government needs to take full advantage of employee capabilities. Everybody wins.


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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