Breaking Job Routines

When work is reduced to a routine, innovative breakthroughs that lead to better, faster, cheaper government become rare.
by | November 17, 2010

Stephen Goldsmith is deputy mayor of operations for the City of New York.

Job routines are comfortable, especially in government. Going "by the book" produces certainty about how a job should be accomplished, provides guideposts for conduct (especially for new actors) and generally insulates against mistakes that can produce negative media attention.

But when work is reduced to a routine, innovative breakthroughs become rare. Lacking the feedback mechanisms of a market, these routines become barriers to change since individual employees have little incentive to exercise discretion or to innovate.

A big part of my role in New York City is to help Mayor Michael Bloomberg achieve his goal of continuously improving every aspect of city operations. This entails challenging bureaucratic conventions that aren't producing public value.

This hit me in a recent meeting with community leaders in Queens. Some of these local leaders owned small businesses, and they used the meeting to express frustration at how government made it difficult for them to succeed. Several leaders complained about city inspectors in general, and health inspectors in particular. Feedback of this type is hard to come by -- it is risky to complain about the person who inspects your business -- but it is critical for officials who want to learn how they can improve.

Sometimes small stories make a big point. One restaurant owner explained that his supplier sells him certain varieties of cheese that can safely remain out of the refrigerator for long periods of time. (Aficionados will tell you cheese tastes best at room temperature, too.) However, city health inspectors, very professionally trained and operating in a highly regarded agency, still primarily enforce rules dictating that cheese be kept at or below 41 degrees when not in direct use. Inspectors of all kinds often are reduced to rule enforcers. I realized that our inspectors had gone from policing whether the cheese is safe to whether it is cold. In doing so, we were imposing real costs (including possible fines) and inconvenience on a struggling small business. How the kitchen inspectors exercised their authority is important to business owners, and it is also important as a metaphor about change.

Many of us who advocate for change cite the famous business book Who Moved My Cheese? This book teaches that those who embrace change will enjoy opportunities that will be missed by those who merely lament change. So how do we convince the health inspector to rethink how he approaches his work, and to make public health a higher priority than the temperature of a wheel of cheese? How will the inspector react to having his cheese moved?

These are not easy trade-offs for managers. Letting go of the comfortable by-the-book routine entails some risk. An inspector with too much leeway might be reprimanded for exercising poor judgment, or he might abuse his discretion, leading to unfairness or corruption.

But let's be clear. The high school civics textbook model in which the legislature passes laws and the executive simply enforces them doesn't exist in reality. Every enforcement agent exercises discretion, including the police officer who decides whether to give a ticket for driving five miles over the limit or whether to arrest someone for minor offenses such as loitering.

Hundreds of rules give inspectors great discretion. I am reminded of the time I toured a large Indianapolis construction site with a building inspector who bragged that if he wanted to, he could close down any project for some rule violation.

That's part of the problem -- the rules are so numerous and so complex that no one can follow all of them perfectly.

We want to move the inspectors' cheese. We want to allow officials to move beyond merely following the rules to making the city healthier by embracing a higher vision of professionalism -- one that looks at results rather than routines. We want the discretion they do have to be exercised in a manner that maximizes the public good that their agency is trying to promote.

There must be rules that guide this effort and inform officials and the public about expectations. A shift to a greater focus on results might involve the following principles:

  1. Give good actors the benefit of the doubt. Good companies that play by the rules shouldn't be treated the same as bad actors who bend every rule. Enforcement consequences should be explicitly tailored to an actor's past record. History matters.
  2. Some employees deserve more latitude than others. Well-trained government professionals, with good records and few complaints, should be given more discretion than new employees or those about whom many complaints have been received. Our new definition of professionalism should grant additional discretion to those who earn it.
  3. Actively solicit feedback. Bureaucrats operate in a closed system. The well-respected restaurant owner with the cheese issue had no way to complain to the agency that regulated him. It's important to create a mechanism to capture suggestions from those who are regulated, taxed and fined by the city. These complaints about inspector courtesy and other issues are opportunities to improve results and drive innovative change.
  4. Create opportunities for inspectors to interact with high quality industry representatives. Professionalism produces consistent and consistently narrow results as officials trained carefully in the technical aspects of their job force a specific process in a classic "if I am a hammer the world looks like a nail" syndrome: "If I inspect for a particular item I will find it." Departments need to ensure that generalists who can weigh tradeoffs -- rather than narrowly trained technicians -- have the authority to dynamically change processes.

Bureaucracies get a bad name when routine actions trump common sense. Citizens bristle when they are required to take senseless actions or fill out meaningless forms. Breaking public officials out of their routine comfort zones and managing them as they solve real problems, not just apply checklists, will enhance public health and safety -- and still allow good restaurants to serve safe, tasty, room temperature cheese.

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