What Is Needed to Build a Transparent, High-Performance Government

The traditional bureaucratic leadership style, typical in governmental organizations, limits employee flexibility in the workplace. Elected and appointed officials, whose leadership styles depend heavily on bureaucratic and directive approaches, inhibit innovation and employee clarity about the expectations set for them. Senior government officials who engage in a broad repertoire of leadership styles, on the other hand, will be the most effective in transforming the Federal government into a transparent, high-performance government capable of addressing the challenges of the 21st century (Peter Orszag, OMB Director).

Engaged employees yield high performing organizations. Engaged employees are people who enjoy the organizational climates in which they work. This is the key to employee satisfaction and, employee satisfaction in the workplace is driven by its leadership.

Leaders who inspire this engagement think strategically and create motivational climates for their employees, taking action according to business-connected, human capital strategies that are well-communicated and supported by their employees. It is this type of leadership that stimulates employee engagement.

There are six Styles of Leadership:
1. Directive (bureaucratic);
2. Visionary (creating long-term clarity & employee commitment);
3. Affiliative (inspiring employee trust);
4. Participative (building commitment and collaboration which foster employee innovation);
5. Pacesetting (establishing high personal standards for employees to achieve); and
6. Coaching (developing long-term professional performance and growth in employees).
(Human Capital Institute, “Driving Accountability & Engagement in the Public Sector”).

Organizational climate is directly & almost immediately influenced by its leadership. An organization’s climate is the perception its employee’s have about what it feels like to work there. It can be sunny, bright & engaging or it can be depressed and sullen. That means the climate within each locally operated Federal Agency is unique to the leader who was appointed to run that portion of the National organization.

The most effective leaders are the people who cultivate respect, who demonstrate honesty & integrity, who general high levels of motivation and commitment, and who communicate to employees what’s going on in their organization. Effective leaders focus less on decision making and technical competence and more on empowering & enabling employees. This creates organizational climate where people step up to challenges & take risks.

In order to achieve a transformed organizational climate in the Federal government, and to carry it through to the service delivery levels, Senior Officials must appoint local officials who demonstrate the right leadership competencies. It is only then that Federal employees will be inspired to innovate, take risks, and take responsibility for service delivery. It is only then that Senior government officials will be the most effective in transforming the Federal government into a transparent, high-performance government capable of addressing the challenges of the 21st century (Peter Orszag, OMB Director).

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Hi Doris – completely agree that we need a new set of leadership competencies for the 21st Century. Time to take a fresh look at the SES Executive Core Qualifications!

Amen => “Effective leaders focus less on decision making and technical competence and more on empowering & enabling employees. This creates organizational climate where people step up to challenges & take risks.”

Gary Berg-Cross

I’ll cross post this topic to the Smarter, Better, Open Government Created by Michael Lennon which has some similar posts reflecting similar goals for engaging people effectively.

Sunny Hester

Agreed Doris. Challenging environment indeed when your leadership completely changes every 4-8 years (or sooner in some cases). Thanks for the post!

Mark Hammer

“Engagement” is a woefully misunderstood and misconceived construct. It is NOT about job satisfaction, or employee happiness, although those are certainly affective side-effects. Engagement is about maintaining the merit you hired someone for. Engagement is not an outcome, but rather a loop in which the anticipated consequences of employee actions lead to the answer “because of this”, when the employee asks themselves “Why bother?”. And when the answer is “because of this”, employees continue to deliver all those things you hired them for, and the things they thought were going to be great about this job.

All people start jobs with expectations about their role, and the short-term and long-term consequences of their actions and efforts. Management’s job is to make sure those expected consequences occur, to the extent they can. When there is a discrepancy between role as understood by employee and conceived by management, then the anticipated consequences of employee actions (as conceived by the employee) will fail to occur. Those consequences could be things like career possibilities, or resources available to employees to accomplish in-role tasks. We hear that one of the reasons why the PS will often lose out to the NGO sector when hiring is because the NGO sector often places the hire in closer proximity to both decision-making and outcomes in the job; NGO jobs are more “engaging” in that sense.

While not everyone’s work in the public sector is project-focussed, for many people it is. When political whimsy, or simple management turnover, sends everyone back to the drawing board and what was of utmost urgency on Friday afternoon is old news on Monday morning, even the most consummate and commendable leaders may find themselves unable to provide a good answer to the “Why bother?” question. When all upper-level jobs are staffed by people parachuted into the organization, and talent never developed from within, the urge to acquire rich organizational knowledge for future roles may be sorely undermined in many employees. I mention these things because they are what might be called “distal” drivers of disengagement, and not the sort of thing easily amenable to simply improving the employee/manager axis, or even under any single manager’s control. Indeed, it is a mistake to think that managers cause or create employee engagement. All they can do is not screw it up. That’s not a trivial task, though, because there are a million ways to screw it up.

The burnout literature provides some insight into engagement and engaging people. The tacit assumption of the burnout literature is that employees always start out “engaged” and highly motivated. What leads to burnout and simply not caring anymore are things like losing track of the intended consequences of one’s efforts and why you took on the job, repetitive failure to make progress, insufficient resources or workload burden that result in an inability to accomplish the intended goals. While burnout certainly occurs outside the public sector, the poster children for burnout are those working in public sector jobs that entail some form of advocacy role: teachers, nurses and doctors, social workers, caregivers, legal aid, etc. And what characterizes burnout in all of them is that they cease being able to see a consequence to their efforts.

Certainly a pat on the back, and a “thank you” are part of what sustains the perception of consequence and recognition, but it is quite possible for people who are deeply and widely appreciated to simply lose their hunger for their work when the work itself does not amount to what they were aiming for, or when the things they are rewarded and recognized for are not the things they thought they were going to be acknowledged for when they started that job. Congruence between assumed role and available roles within the organization is crucial. If I can’t be who I thought I was going to be when I got hired into the organization, my motivation will drop.

All of this ponderous meandering is to say that leadership IS important, but its relationship to employee engagement is not at all what many of the consulting firms would have us believe, and employees continue to become disengaged in spite of heroic and commendable efforts on the part of management. I can like the peole I work with, and enjoy coming into work each day, but spend the rest of the day surfing the web. That may not be what you hired me for. Am I .satisfied” and “committed”? maybe. Am I engaged? Not likely.

Laura Wesley

Oh wow! I’ve never heard it described like that. Well done! I appreciate your analysis of some potential solutions. I think you’re right that “Engaged employees yield high performing organizations.” In fact, there has been research done in Canada linking Engaged employees to better service delivery to improved confidence and trust from the public in government institutions. I’ve expanded on it a little bit here: https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/public-service-value-chain