How to Outshine 95% of Government Managers


Ah, managers – the people everybody love to hate (especially the pointy-haired Dilbert-esque kind). “Who needs ’em?” some people say. “They do the same thing as the rest of us, they just get paid more. We’d be fine without them.”

Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, these critics are exactly right. Getting rid of a manager wouldn’t really change anything about how work gets done. Why? Because these “managers” aren’t actually doing any managing.

I’ve worked with a lot of managers in government, and virtually all of them seem to think that their job is to be the Chief Clerk/Scientist/Investigator/Regulator/Whatever-er. If you ask them what they do they say something about taking on the most difficult cases, assisting junior staff, etc – the same sort of things that they did before they became a manager.  In these cases, the critics are right. The manager is simply a higher-paid, (hopefully) more knowledgeable version of front-line staff. They’ve completely missed the boat about what a manager is supposed to do.

What these critics (and most managers) fail to realize is that management is a separate field and science unto itself. When you become a manager, you’re playing a whole different ballgame; one where the knowledge from your previous life as a staff person is useful but insufficient.

Why? Because your job has changed from performing the work to managing how work moves through your organization.

Let’s illustrate that. Imagine a typical social services agency led by a manager and staffed with a number of social workers. Like most such agencies, this one is understaffed, so the manager carries a caseload along with the social workers who report to her. This of course, takes up nearly all of her time.

So what is she doing that we typically think of as “managerial?” How about:

  • Case Assignment
  • Hiring
  • Expenditure Approval
  • Performance Appraisals and Goal-Setting

Now I’m not saying that any of this is unnecessary, but what benefit is there to having a higher-paid “manager” to do all of this (during the 10% of her time that she isn’t working her caseload)? There’s no real reason that you couldn’t automate or foist these tasks off on others such as HR. You could even have the social workers as a group circle up and take care of these items once in a while. So what benefits does the agency reap by having a manager? In this case, very little.

So are the critics, right? Are managers unnecessary? No. Absolutely not. In fact, with scarce resources, divided leadership, and problems of global import looming on the horizon, government needs good managers now almost more than ever before.

So what could this manager be doing if she weren’t so busy with her caseload? Actually managing! Some ideas:

  • Examining steps in her organization’s process to see if any could be automated and eliminated
  • Gathering and analyzing data to find ways to improve the effectiveness of her’s agency’s programs
  • Reevaluating policies in order to modify or remove those that unnecessarily harm productivity
  • Gathering feedback on how to improve from service recipients
  • Finding the bottlenecks that slow down the flow of work and negatively impact quality

The list could go on, but there’s a key difference. Whereas the manager had little to no impact on organizational performance by doing activities from the first list, focusing on the items in the second list could result in enormous improvements in the speed and quality of service delivery.

This is the reason that most government managers aren’t really good managers at all. They think that management is about approving expense reports, throwing up a new web site, or rushing to fill out employee evaluations at the end of the year. Do better than they have done. Learn to make real improvements by actually managing your organization and you’ll stand head and shoulders above your peers.

Kyle Barney is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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