The Managers Government Doesn’t Need

Eliminating layers of them would do more than save money. It would empower public workers and unleash their capabilities.
January 31, 2018
In the 1999 film "Office Space," bad bosses are shown to have an intensely negative effect on job satisfaction. (20th Century Fox)
By Howard Risher  |  Contributor
Consultant focusing on public-sector pay and performance

There is a simple answer to addressing a significant part of government's staffing problem. It's the elimination of a layer or more of management. Doing so has an impact beyond simply reduction in payroll: It also reduces bureaucracy, so decisions are made more quickly. Most important, it increases the "span of control" -- the number of subordinates a supervisor has -- which induces managers to shift from close control to empowering staff.

This isn't a new idea. Decades of success with flattening management hierarchies in the private sector have been well documented, and it's long been advocated by public-management experts. But little progress has been made in government.

When the 1990-91 recession forced corporations to cut costs, the most prominent response was the elimination of layers of management. Initially the managers who remained were overwhelmed by increased staff under their supervision. The answer was delegation and empowerment. The influential book Reengineering the Corporation, published in 1993, focused on the capability of employees to improve work systems, marking the beginning of a revolution in the way work is organized and workers managed.

Today in the private sector there are millions of workers who rarely see their manager. They know what they need to accomplish and go out and do it. Most are not truly self-managed -- they and their managers agree on goals and metrics to track performance -- but they have considerable autonomy in how they work.

Research confirms that employees enjoy the autonomy, respond to the challenge and perform better when they define their own goals. The increased autonomy leads to formal and informal teams of employees who collaborate in accomplishing goals. Most employees find they like working in teams. It facilitates the best use of their skills.

I learned how powerful this can be decades ago. In the 1970s, I worked as a junior consultant to the Scott Paper Co. when it opened a new plant that produced paper towels. The plant production process had no supervisors. Instead, it had what were called "autonomous work teams." The plan was to eliminate virtually all managers, including HR - the production workers were to handle virtually everything.

After four months, a colleague and I interviewed several of the plant's workers. Their comments were eye-opening. Their commitment to making the plant a success was palpable. One worker thanked God for the chance to work there. Another said, "We will never let a union mess this up."

There are a couple of caveats. First, good performance requires adequate training. Second, the Scott Paper story involves a start-up organization and employees hired with the understanding from the outset that they were expected to function largely on their own. In an existing work environment in which management layers are being eliminated, everyone involved has to understand and accept that the way they approach their jobs and their working relationships will need to change. Leaders have to emphasize the anticipated benefits.

Employees may not all get on board immediately -- many will be uncomfortable with change -- but the initial success stories will encourage them toward acceptance of new ways of doing things. Recently in this space I discussed the city of Denver's Peak Performance program. It's not a story of self-managed teams, but city employees work on projects they plan and carry out to improve performance. They own the projects and are committed to success. It was reported that since the program was started in 2011 employee-driven projects had generated savings of more than $25 million for the city.

Group and team incentives -- even modest payouts -- can help as well. They send the message that senior leadership supports and encourages change, and the prospect of rewards riding on performance makes employees stakeholders in successful change. But incentives need to be part of broader strategy. The prospect of money alone is no guarantee that change initiatives will be successful. A thread that runs through the success stories is that the employees need to be involve in the planning.

There are of course many public-sector employees who already function with a high degree of autonomy. Police officers, forest rangers, public-health specialists and other government workers commonly spend hours each day away from their direct managers. That they are fully capable of performing well without constant supervision tells us that the same would be true of most public workers.

Public agencies start with an advantage over the private sector: Their purpose triggers a commitment to addressing societal problems. But traditional work-management thinking still prevails in far too many jurisdictions and is silent on more fully utilizing employee capabilities. That's unfortunate for both government agencies and their people. The Denver story shows that employees want to do more.