What Netflix Can Do for Government


Working in government, one often hears the call “to be more like the private sector.” From time to time, industry leaders have been tapped for high-level positions in government – with mixed success or worse.

As a fan of Netlfix – my main source of binge-watching television – and a student of leadership, I was curious whether or not their approach to building a distinct corporate culture had anything to offer the public sector.

Netflix made a conscious commitment to evolving a distinctive culture as it built its company and its brand.  It began in 2001 with a 125-slide deck known as the Netflix Culture Deck, as a public, downloadable statement of the principles and practices that would guide its leaders’ vision and the expectations for its employees.

In 2017, the slide deck became a more digestible 10-page statement. The statement opens with a goal “to strive to hire the best and we value integrity, excellence, respect and collaboration.” It’s not that far away from JFK’s vision, which drew so many young people to public service over 50 years ago. Overall, it underscores its view of what makes Netflix unique. And here’s where the challenge to the public sector begins:

What is unique and special about Netflix is how much we: 

  • encourage independent decision-making by employees
  • share information openly, broadly and deliberately
  • be extraordinarily candid with each other
  • keep only our highly effective people
  • avoid rules

 Our core philosophy is people over process.

As a veteran federal manager of a foreign affairs agency and entrusted with stewardship of citizens’ tax dollars, I know we can skip the notion of avoiding rules. And like all federal managers and leaders of large, public organizations, no one seems to have cracked the code for a performance evaluation system that keeps only the most highly effective people while being fair to all employees. Laws, regulations, ingrained practices – and yes, culture – all stand in the way of adapting public sector approaches to those of Netflix.

But could government do better in encouraging independent decision making, sharing information and being more candid with each other?

The annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey now provides data on how government is doing in these areas. While some departments and agencies fare well in these scores, overall scores suggest much more work needs to be done.

On the measure of empowering employees in the 2017 FEVS report, the overall government score was 59 percent of respondents answering positively.  This finding is based on responses to the following questions:

  • I have enough information to do my job well.
  • I feel encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things.
  • My talents are used well in the workplace.
  • Employees have a feeling of personal empowerment with respect to work processes.

These findings suggest that we might benefit by watching more Netflix.

First, top leadership and line supervisors could learn from Netflix to replace ingrained cultures of “need to know” with “need to share.” While this debate arose in the aftermath of 9/11 and coordination of intelligence, the information necessary for most federal employees has to do with basic situational awareness, new policies and procedures and leadership’s take on the internal and external environment.   Information – with protections for items truly sensitive for national security purposes, i.e. not politically embarrassing information – needs to flow freer and faster across the bureaucracy.

Second, supervisors need to be trained to know the difference between rowing and steering and accept the responsibilities that come with managing people and tasks. This challenge may include mastering a different skill set than what brought talented technical staff success in their last job. Setting conditions for success, removing roadblocks and letting go of some of the details are likely to improve employee performance as employees are empowered to do their jobs. With this in mind, investments and incentives for excellence in supervision should be prioritized.

Third, can we be “extraordinarily candid with each other” as Netflix advises? Their policy is the “keeper test” or, would a manager fight to keep someone from departing? If not, they are “promptly and respectfully” given a severance package. While this may not be feasible given federal employee protections and questions about fairness, the principle of the keeper test, followed by “what steps would be needed for this employee to be one worth keeping?” is the first step to a more candid system of employee performance management.  The FEVS reveals that one constant morale killer is failure to deal with non-performers.

The credo of “people over process” is probably the cultural Netflix norm most adoptable by government at all levels. It starts with giving people more say in their work, the information they need to make good decisions and candor about group and institutional performance – at all levels of the organization.  That would be “Recommended Viewing” for sure.


Neil A. Levine 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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