Hierarchical organizations, like traditional public agencies, have developed structures, policies, and rules that minimize risk taking and encourage standardized work processes. Governments have traditionally rewarded those who “play by the rules.” This approach seems to have worked in times of stability or expansion. However, today’s challenges related to funding and resource allocation require innovative, creative solutions. The best solutions will not come from the top; rather, they will come from an engaged workforce driving new approaches.
A recent employee engagement study from IPMA-HR and ADP suggests that when government upgrades technology and consolidates disparate systems, it frees employees from routine administrative processes, allowing them to focus on “high-value, mission-critical tasks.”
Once employees are freed to focus on high value issues, how do you facilitate the conversation so it is forward-moving and innovative? Here are three strategies:
1. Measure what really matters. It’s easy to measure processes (number of permit applications processed, number of leads generated, number of surveys received). Oftentimes, the process itself does not lead to an end result that really matters. Ask your staff what end results truly matter to the community. Ask your citizenry. Rather than counting the number of applications received, the important measure might be the speed at which the applications are processed or the speeds at which pubic services were delivered. Instead of counting the surveys received, track improvements in survey data month over month. Employees know what really matters. Engage them in a conversation about the outcomes of their work, and they will help you determine how to increase levels of performance.
2. Regularly ask what’s working and what’s not. Engaging employees means you ask them what they think. And then you listen. An easy exercise is to regularly ask the staff to collectively list the things that are going well for the work group and the things that could be improved. Have them write their ideas on an easel pad with the good things on one side and the problems on the other. Once employees are done brainstorming, lead a discussion (not a response or a defense) about how to maintain the good stuff and how to address the challenges. Ask them for solutions. Be sure to follow-up and act on as many of their ideas as possible. If you do this quarterly or semi-annually, employees naturally feel more valued and more engaged.
3. Call out the excuses. As you begin to engage employees in conversations about improving work, you will inevitably hear excuses for why things can’t change. These excuses are the barriers between the status quo and an improved state. Seth Godin in his book Tribes says employees with excuses are “sheepwalkers.” Sheepwalkers are those who follow the flock, fighting to protect the status quo at all costs, never asking if obedience is doing them or the organization any good. Call the sheepwalkers on their game and challenge the excuses that are put up in the face of change. Encourage them instead to identify solutions, rather than barriers.
Just because it’s always been that way doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Public sector managers have an opportunity to re-engage employees in the important work they do through simple, no-cost tools. The first step is to ask employees to be engaged.