Problem-Solving in Government

Problems come across our desks of all sizes and shapes. Some are easy to address and others are not. Some take time while others can be solved with a short phone call. What’s the best way to tackle problem-solving?change management

1. Identify what kind of problem it is. Is it a problem with a definite answer like 2 + 2 = 4?  Simple math problems rarely come across my desk but sometimes they do. More likely I get a policy question with no clear answer like, if we add 4,000 new residential units to our downtown how will that impact our public schools?  I don’t know. I can look at studies from other cities and guesstimate what the answer might be but I can never have the exact answer to that particular problem.   

2. Recognize a time frame for you. Is it a big problem or a little one? I determine the scope of the problem by how quickly I can resolve it. Can I solve it in a day? A month? A year? Small problems can be solved in a day. Bigger problems take a year or more. What can I solve in day? I can call the IT department and ask them to expand the size of my inbox because I am receiving data-rich files that are eating up my memory. Bigger challenges like building a 440-residential unit and mixed-use development may take me a few years to pull together.

3. Commit to a time frame for others. Some problems like paying parking tickets or getting your car inspected have deadlines. You need to meet deadlines. But your deadline may not be another person’s deadline. As a problem solver and a public servant you should manage expectations. It would be easier in some cases to say you can address the issue by tomorrow but if you know it isn’t until next week, be honest about it. In my experience, people would rather be told the truth upfront than strung along with false hope.

4. Understand that most problems will not go away – even if they are ignored. If you don’t call a constituent back or deal with a problem, it usually grows. In New York State, lawyers are supposed to return their clients phone calls within 24 hours. I keep that as a personal goal in all of my business transactions. But I know sometimes things slip through the cracks so I also tell people that if they have not heard from me in that time frame they should email me to follow up. Most people are surprised by my quick turnaround but I find that if I do not address things right away they get lost or snowball.

5. Admit when you can’t solve a problem. I am not an engineer, a tax accountant or a litigator. I cannot solve everyone’s problems all of the time. Although you would be shocked at the number and array of problems that I am able to solve that are beyond my expertise. How? I find someone who can solve the problems I can’t. A lot of times people get caught up with whether or not they get credit for things. I understand why that seems important. But any manager worth their salt is going to give you credit for getting the job done correctly, not just expeditiously.  Knowing your weaknesses as well as your strengths shows a maturity of character that not everyone possesses.

In the movie, Desk Set, Katherine Hepburn is in charge of a research library where anyone can call in and get answers to any question. When you work in a government office you may feel like the public expects that level of service. It can, at times, be frustrating. But we signed up for public service because we like helping people and ultimately serving the public, in all kinds of capacities, is our job.

In my office we joke that even though we are in the Economic Development Department, we should call it the “What’s the Ground Speed of a Cheetah” Department. Because that perfectly reflects the randomness of the problems we are asked to solve on a daily basis. I could say that question is not my problem to solve. But, the answer is 68-75 m.p.h.  Can I help you with anything else?

For more reading on problem-solving in government, check out these articles:

How Do You Solve Problems in Your City?

How to Use Systems-Thinking to Solve Problems and Get Stuff Done

Need a More Engaged Team? Give Them Intriguing Puzzles to Solve

Wilson Kimball is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Avatar photo Blake Martin

I loved this piece as I think it’s so immediately helpful for many (including myself). Seconding your point on committing to a timeline for yourself, I think that the 24-hour window is a great expectation. I’ve gotten into the habit of marking messages or emails unread after initially reading and scheduling a 15-minute “appointment” within next day or two that I must reply by. It’s all about accountability!