What Empowered Public Employees Could Accomplish

"Participative management" is big in the private sector. Government leaders need to recognize its value.
by | October 11, 2016

Howard Risher

A consultant focusing on public-sector pay and performance

Through all but the last years of the 20th century, management theorists relied on the metaphor of organizations as machines. The model, developed in the scientific-management era, emphasizes tightly defined jobs, centralized decision-making and onerous regulations. In hindsight, it's not surprising that that model was adopted by those working to improve government. It describes the classic bureaucracy. Out of that model came such "tools" as quality management, lean production and process-improvement methods such as Six Sigma.

These techniques have considerable value in a manufacturing environment, where speed, efficiency and waste minimization are important goals. But they implicitly assume that the current process or way of doing things is the best way. There is pressure to "keep doing what we're doing but do it better."

That mindset is entirely wrong where problem solving and innovation are important to success, as is so true of the public sector in this era of ever-more-limited resources. It actually discourages efforts to develop better answers. In that environment, the role of supervisors is to make certain that workers do what they are told and stay out of trouble. Management does the thinking.

For years, human-resources specialists have argued that "participative management" was a worthy idea, but no one listened. That changed starting in the early 1990s with the Michael Hammer-James Champy book Reengineering the Corporation, the explosion of personal computers, the growing interest in knowledge management, and the emergence of knowledge-based organizations like Microsoft. Businesses came to recognize that employees are more than a cost to be minimized.

It's not clear when the word "empowerment" was first used in a discussion of workers in business, but it rapidly became the norm in progressive companies. Empowerment has always been the norm in higher education, and it has become the norm in health care. As long ago as 1983, for example, the American Nurses Association initiated the idea of "Magnet" hospitals, in which empowerment is a core value. Here is how the ANA website describes the work environment in a Magnet hospital: "Nurses throughout Magnet-recognized organizations are involved in shared governance and decision making structures and processes to establish standards of practice and address opportunities for improvement."

That theme is reinforced on the website of the American Psychological Association's Center for Organizational Excellence, where empowerment is listed as the first of five "psychologically healthy workplace practices." As the website states, "Employee involvement programs can increase job satisfaction, employee morale and commitment to the organization, as well as increase productivity, reduce turnover and absenteeism and enhance the quality of products and services."

Where employees are empowered to address problems and make job-related decisions, those organizations perform at higher levels. That has been confirmed in numerous studies. But empowerment is not nearly as prevalent in government. Far too many public employees continue to work in environments where they are deterred from questioning obviously poor decisions and ineffective practices.

Government is not the same as manufacturing. Public employees tend to be better educated, many have years or decades of experience, and many have ideas that would trigger improved performance. To benefit from their knowledge, agencies should consider committing to another of those management tools -- "continuous improvement." It's been defined by the Institute of Quality Assurance as "a gradual never-ending change. ... Put simply, it means 'getting better all the time.'"

The potential gains are far broader than efficiency. Too often, approaches like Six Sigma become almost ritualistic and depend on outside experts. In contrast, continuous improvement can be undertaken informally by individual managers or departments. It can be as simple as asking a team to evaluate the effectiveness of a policy. One federal agency, for example, undertakes an annual review of its HR practices, soliciting feedback from managers and employees.

No one understands better than public employees do where possible changes will improve an agency's performance. Their work and discussions with co-workers inevitably trigger ideas. Where there are savings, a portion could be shared with employees. It's important for public employers to recognize that most employees really do want to help their employers succeed.

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