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The silent voice of government employees

2012 October 14

I’ve been a private sector guy all my life. I like singing for my supper. I like fighting on any consulting proposal, executive education gig, or speaking platform. I consider myself a front-line warrior in an economic war, and I like the thrill of victory and (in moderate doses) the agony of defeat. I have created employment for others (with some inevitable ups and downs), brought back currency to the countries that have been my home, and have traditionally thought of myself as an entrepreneurial type that makes an economic contribution to society without expecting much social credit for it. Most of my fellow citizens seem to believe the wealth generated by entrepreneurial success should be my sole reward, and that’s OK with me. With most of my family members in France as civil servants of one kind or other – many teachers among them – I have run at a young age as far away from government employment as I could, even moving to America to be at the frontier of creative capitalism and avoid any public temptation.

Through the vagaries of consulting life, though, I have found myself in the last few years confronted with the challenge of helping large government entities transform. As is often the case, civil servants have morphed in my mind from abstract aggregates represented by predatory unions into real people of flesh and blood, many of whom I actually like. It was always easier for me to develop a fondness for “teachers, policemen and firemen”, these archetypical public servants US Democrats like for us to visualize when they talk about government employees. But I have discovered that people working in post offices, unemployment agencies, government healthcare or ministries can touch my heart as deeply as any private sector person trying to make a living. As naïve as it may be, I have discovered that government employees are people too.

The social net may be protecting them better than most, and there are undeniably stories of excess involving them, but I have lately found myself wondering what it feels like to only be described as a sector to be shrunk, a cost to be minimized, or a citizens service to be improved. Strangely missing is a discussion of their own professional experience, as if their life had become irrelevant to the debate, or could somehow be reduced to a collective bargaining discussion conducted on their behalf by their unions. The miserable nature of the public servant’s experience has become a bit more visible in a country like France where a wave of suicides has spread through the country when government employees have been pushed to adopt new private sector practices, as has been the case at France Telecom. At this level of distress, it becomes hard to ignore the emotional reality involved.

It strikes me that the process of transformation used by managers of public entities deserves a lot of the blame. To improve productivity and service, public managers typically set goals and cascade them down through a chain of command that pushes front-line employees to higher performance level. This top-down, process-based approach has the net effect of squeezing everybody into a tighter and tighter box, producing extraordinary pain for all involved, from top managers to supervisors to front-line employees.

The key to reversing this process is to initiate a chain of empathy that starts with the interaction between employee and customer. Front-line employees and customers know a lot more than their managers about what to do. Together, they will engage with their customers and reinvent the system at the level of each post office, each blood donation team, each unemployment office, or each ministry’s office. Out of self-interest, public employees and customers will co-create better interactions between them. They’ll even figure out how to migrate these new innovative practices from office to office through peer-to-peer mechanisms, because, believe it or not, they talk to each other on the phone or on Facebook. The French post office has done that with great success (public disclosure: I have worked with them on their transformation). If the French post office can do it, shouldn’t any other public or para-public entity be able to do it?

For this to happen, though, senior government people will need to let go. This is not how senior government managers have been taught at the Harvard School of Government in the US, or the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) in France. And yet, this is what they should do: their role should be to lay out a few top-level goals, make some central resources available, then get out of the way. From there on, local post office employees will figure out with customers how to lay out or manage the local post office. Local unemployment office agents will team up with people looking for jobs and local employers to figure out how they should work together. Local blood donation staff will figure out with blood donors when and how to schedule each session. There is nothing like the self-interest of local parties to come up with innovative solutions and migrate their solutions from place to place to solve the huge societal problems that plague us.

The time has come to reinvent government. Disappointingly, none of that is part of the current presidential campaign discussion in the US.

One Response leave one →
  1. June 3, 2013

    Every state has its own army of public-sector workers – teachers, policemen, firemen, tax-collectors and so on – who enable the state government to carry out of all of its functions. Similar to the situation in much of Europe, the vast majority of these workers belong to final salary pension schemes provided by the state, which are often more generous than the kind of occupational pensions which are available in the private sector.

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