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Whims of Iron: Avoiding Ineffective Policy Making

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

By Thomas E. Poulin
June 2, 2019 

Public agencies exist to meet the needs and expectations of their communities, regardless of professional discipline and regardless of the setting. To achieve these ends, leaders of these agencies seek to employ, develop and unleash talented, motivated workers. Overall, one can see public employees excelling in the workplace, acting in an innovative, entrepreneurial manner and doing the best they can in a dynamic environment with the authorities and resources available to them. However, at times they are restrained unnecessarily by what might be termed a whim of iron.

A whim of iron is a decision made in a reactive, short-sighted manner. It is a response enacted  with little thought as to how the action aligns with achieving the organizational mission or with the unintended consequences such a decision might bring. Many leaders attempt to create a value-driven organization and a mission-oriented mindset across the agency, spurring employees to achieve the highest levels of service quality and quantity for the community.

While this is desirable, there will always be areas where written policies and procedures might frame the performance of employees. There is nothing inherently wrong in this, and we can easily argue there are immense benefits to having clear, formal written policies related to safety, compensation, diversity and many high-risk, technical operations. These benefits are most likely to be found when policies and procedures are carefully crafted, focused on aligning employee performance with the goals and objectives of the agency, supporting mission attainment. Sadly, this is not always the case.

In many organizations, you may hear anecdotes suggesting any policy or procedure you mention be named after a specific employee. While this might be understandable, it is incorrect; policies are not written by employees —they are written by leaders. If we study these situations, we are most likely to find that a single employee did something unacceptable, whether they went out of bounds a little or a lot.

In response, a leader, often acting independently and in a rushed manner, acts in a reactive manner, writing a policy which forever limits the ability of employees and lower-level leaders to think or act outside the box. Often we find the policy has made the existing box smaller. From one perspective we can understand the rationale behind this, and we might sympathize with the frustration and anger which might have contributed to this, but we also need to see this as the whim of iron that it is. If we see a whim of iron emerge, we need to address it effectively so employees are not unnecessarily constrained.

When we see a whim of iron, we need to accept it was not created with any ill intent. It was a reactive application of executive power in circumstances which might have been perceived as wholly unacceptable at the time. In the heat of the moment, a sense of urgency might call for an immediate limitation on the actions of employees.

The problem arises when the issue is not revisited in a timely, objective manner. The problem arises when we do not explore whether or not this was in reality a personnel issue, requiring corrective action against a single individual, as opposed to a systemic issue requiring a systemic response.  Further, the problem is exacerbated when a leader decides the whim cannot be a subject of discussion now or at any time in the future, contributing to long-term negative effects from an unreasoned, unexamined decision.

As a basic tenet of strategic action, we need to ensure policies, practices and procedures are aligned with the organizational mission. This requires revisiting organizational frameworks from time to time. If this applies to all other aspects of the organization, then it must certainly apply to these whims of iron, ensuring what might have seemed to be a strong show of leadership at one point in time does not become an anchor holding back organizational progress. Revisiting decisions from time to time is a strength, not a weakness.

People enter the public sector because they have a passion to serve a greater good. They often have a very clear, personal vision of how their agencies can better serve their communities. This can make them very action-oriented, which is certainly a desirable trait in any workplace. However, with every positive comes a negative. A strong action orientation may be combined with an inclination towards frustration and impatience with any event appearing to stem progress. The positive about this is it can contribute to an entrepreneurial spirit, but the negative is it might contribute to an occasional tendency to revert to formal structures, limiting certain types of behavior and potentially forcing employees to act in a narrow manner that limits independent action.

Leaders in any organization can find themselves challenged with how much freedom to provide employees. Like professional jockeys who recognize and respect thoroughbred horses, organizational leaders must recognize when to let the employees run, and when to make minor corrections to keep the employees going in the right direction. Leaders must balance how not to interfere with performance excellence. A whim of iron only increases the burden on employees, contributing to wasted effort. This serves neither the employee, the organization or the  communities public administrators serve.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych.), EFO, is core faculty in Capella University’s public administration programs Prior to this, he worked in local government for over three decades. He may be reached at [email protected]


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