Accountability in Government? The Buck STARTS Here

In 2001, I began my career in Government hoping to gain stability and a nest egg to start my own business as a child and family therapist. Money for social services was in surplus at the time. Two years later as we began to feel the recession at work and many young, energized staff were laid off, I became afraid that my career goals as an entrepreneur were lost. Until 2009, I was the youngest person on my team by nearly a decade. I had survived rounds of lay-offs, increased workload, no or little raise in pay, no training budget, department merges, doing “more with less” and being “happy to have a job.” I was using technology from my home life for my work life and training others to do the same.

Coming out of the storm (aka the “recession”), I had a revelation: through all of this, one thing never changed that limited our ability to do more with less: Culture. The rules and expectations of the workplace remained the same: people were expected to be in the office during “work hours.” Government owned their lives from 8-5 Monday through Friday, and if they wanted to change those hours or meet their clients during the client’s most convenient time (i.e. after the client’s work hours), there was an extensive permissions process through management. We had advanced technology, but we were only given permission to use it in “dire circumstances” or when we had been given special permission from our boss (and for team members, the boss’s favorite always had this opportunity). Only telecommuters were allowed to work from home (even with laptops), and you had to be on a 2-3 year waiting list to be a telecommuter (even though your colleague on that other team got set up in 2 months). We had social workers sitting at their desk answering phone calls with cell phones when they were “on call” because the policy clearly stated that they needed to be on-site when it was created before cell phones existed. We had financial workers who were forbidden to remove their laptops from their docking stations at any time because “that’s not the way we do business.” And we had clinic hours 8-4:30 even though our clients were requesting later hours and staff were no longer scheduling 8:00 appointments because of the high no-show rate.

Then, we transformed to a Results Only Work Environment. Staff and leaders were trained to “do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted as long as the work got done.” They worked to follow 13 guideposts like “every meeting is optional” and “every day feels like Saturday.” Culture changed from the bottom up and the top down. Staff and leaders were asking for clarification about their work, evaluating what “professional” means in the workplace, focusing on strengths of team members, creating task-based coverage calendars, reviewing and eliminating policies, and most importantly, working toward clear results and accountability at every level, and I became an entrepreneur in government.

By staff request (during my first maternity leave!), I designed a method to help staff and leaders clarify their results: What is their mission and vision? Who are their customers? What do they hope to achieve by doing their work? At the team level, they agreed upon useful activities, indicators of success and challenges toward their goals. They created goals for continuous improvement. They did it together as a team in a fun, energized workshop. Then, they created individual results that align with the teams, all under the umbrella of the Mission, Vision, and goals of the department. Leaders were thrilled with the clarification saying, “this makes managing performance easy.” Staff were intrigued by the apparent disconnect in the team’s responsibility and excited about opportunities for cross-training and clarification across teams.

Leaders enthusiastically shared their work with others across the department via webinars and presentations. They continue to use this format to report their work and manage their own performance ongoing.

A similar approach was implemented in Crow Wing County’s Community Services in MN. Early success warranted elimination of over 200 metrics and measurements, focusing on 20 metrics that are meaningful to the entire department. Leadership reported increased employee engagement and performance management at all levels of the department.

Is accountability a necessity in Government? Yes, and it’s easy. It starts with crystal clear results and a culture to support the work: managing the work, not the people, and using technology to enhance productivity, communication, and creativity. The recession may have been our sticking point, but with the cultural transformation and dedication to focus on results, we projected our staff into the “now” so we can now look to the future.

To get started, read the book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix it by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson. Then, contact me to join our monthly discussions about how government can become the next best place to work.

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