Professionals Must Make Noise About Making a Difference in State and Local Government

Government employees' contributions to their organizations revolve around six key areas of commitment.
June 7, 2006
Bob O'Neill
By Robert J. O'Neill Jr.  |  Contributor
Past executive director of the International City/County Management Association

During the first week of May, Washington, D.C., was alive with great stories about the outstanding contributions of the men and women who serve America as local, state and federal government employees. The occasion? Public Service Recognition Week, the time set aside to "educate citizens about the many ways in which government serves the people and how government services make life better for all of us."

A few weeks ago, I also spent a day and a half with some of the extraordinary leaders who played a big part in the 2005 designation by the Government Performance Project (a joint effort of the Pew Charitable trusts and Governing magazine) of the commonwealth of Virginia as one of the nation's best-managed states. Virginia was the only state in the nation to earn straight A's for its management of "money, people, infrastructure, and information," and then Governor Mark Warner held a press conference in January of last year announcing the prestigious honor.

Despite all the hoopla, I'd bet that less than 10 percent of Virginians were aware that their state had been so highly honored. I'd also venture a guess that an even smaller percentage of Americans nationwide were aware of Public Service Recognition Week or, for that matter, of the contribution that their appointed officials make to the quality of life in their communities.

All our research and experience suggests that one of the clearest predictors of success and performance in state and local government is the quality of the individuals who work in those organizations, and that professional leaders and managers matter. Yet, very few people know who we are, what we do, or how we contribute.

So just what is the "value proposition" of professional managers to public service? What difference does employing a highly trained, skilled professional really make? The success of an outstanding organization is determined, in large part, by its ability to connect vision, mission, and execution, and professionals bring extraordinary value to this process. Our contributions revolve around six key areas of commitment to:

· A Higher Level of Ethical Standards and Personal Integrity -- Most professionals in public service are dedicated to a set of values, principles, and ethical standards that are essential to the integrity of the public enterprise. The International City/County Management Association's members, for example, subscribe to a Code of Ethics that is based on adherence to, among other things, standards of honesty and integrity that go beyond those required by the law. It is through commitment to a higher set of ideals that professional managers "affirm the dignity and worth of the services rendered by government and maintain....a deep sense of social responsibility as a trusted public servant." 1

· Efficiency and Results that Matter -- At the core of every outstanding public organization is a group of expert managers who are dedicated to the successful stewardship of the public's assets and resources. These individuals are committed to achieving results that matter most to stakeholders and to pursuing excellence and total quality in the design and delivery of public services.

· A Long-Term, Community-Wide Perspective -- Our world view is framed by policies developed by anecdote and explained in sixty-second sound bites. Professional managers can bring a long-term perspective to discussions and strategies. With term limits and elections by district becoming more prevalent at the local level, professional managers may be the only ones who can bring a long-term perspective to discussions and strategies.

· Democratic Values -- How often have we heard the lament: "If you would just run government like a business ... or at the speed of the Internet...."? Professional managers are constantly trying to balance business and process efficiency with the values important to preserving democratic institutions. Day after day we face the challenge of balancing processes based on "notice, transparency, and due process" with the "need for speed" made possible by state-of-the-art processes and technology.

· Developing and Sustaining Competency -- Excellent organizations have a relentless focus on implementation and execution. Building and sustaining organizational capacity is a fundamental responsibility of leadership. Professionally run organizations are much more successful in attracting, retaining, and developing talent, particularly during times such as the present, when major generational shifts are taking place and cultivating the workforce of the future becomes critical.

· Equity -- Great organizations are about inclusiveness. They consider those who may not have a "strong voice" or access to traditional sources of power and institutions. Professional managers strive not only to be inclusive but to give attention to individuals and groups without access.

So -- if the average citizen recognizes that these commitments are important and the value proposition of professional management is therefore clear, why is it so difficult for many stakeholders, including elected officials and the media, to understand the enormous contributions made by professional local and state government staff?

One answer lies in Jim Collins' "Good to Great and the Social Sectors." The best executives and managers I have seen in public service are extraordinary examples of Collins' Level 5 leadership. As he describes it, "Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It's not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious -- but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves."

While it is this relentless pursuit of the organizational mission combined with personal humility that represents the very best of the public service professional, that personal humility presents a paradox: If we deflect the credit by first giving it to others, how do stakeholders recognize the contribution we have made?

As I discussed earlier, in today's world, it is often the person or institution with the loudest sound bite that draws the most attention, while the men and women who go about their work with little fanfare seldom are heard. Rarely do these highly trained, experienced professional leaders and managers receive the recognition or "celebrations" they deserve.

Our challenge is to balance humility with the need to educate stakeholders and constituents about what professional leadership and management are all about -- and more importantly, why they should care. Only by telling our own story -- through a few words delivered at a public forum or civic group meeting or coordination of our community's participation in events such as Public Service Recognition Week -- can we foster an appreciation of the fact that good governance, effective policy, and the efficient delivery of services every day don't just happen. It is a partnership that is fueled by the momentum of dedicated, professional policy makers and those who execute those policies.

1. ICMA Code of Ethics with Guidelines. International City/County Management Association; last revised July 2004.