How to Turn Public Employees Into Owners

We can't give them stock options. But there's a lot we can do to help them feel appreciated and integral to their agencies' missions.
May 4, 2015
By John Born  |  Contributor
John Born is the director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety.

A government agency is nothing without the hard work and commitment of its employees. I've seen firsthand the type of people who want to work for the public sector, and they aren't just attracted to wages or benefits. They want their efforts to contribute to a greater good.

Public-sector managers should remember this and work to make government employees feel integral to the missions and to the goals that they clock in every morning to achieve. This is done by turning them into owners.

We rarely talk about employee ownership in the public sector, though its effects on private industries are well known: higher satisfaction, retention and productivity. Our methods obviously will need to differ from those of the private sector, as we can't offer stock options, not to mention perks like the nap pods of Google or the company-owned Toyota Priuses of Chipotle. But we shouldn't see our hands as tied. We can achieve the same results as private businesses do by appealing to what attracted government employees to their careers in the first place.

One of the most powerful ways to accomplish this is to recognize public employees for attitudes, action and commitment that underscore their ownership in public service and its strong purpose. The Ohio Department of Safety (ODPS) recently honored several employees whose ownership of their work is inspirational.

One is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who suffered extensive injuries to his lower leg in the line of duty. After rehabilitative efforts, and soon before he was to return to work with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, he was in a car wreck resulting in the amputation of that same leg. Yet after more rehabilitation, he passed through the Patrol Academy for the second time and became the first trooper in the division's history with a prosthetic limb.

What drew this trooper back to work is what drew him to the patrol in the first place. It's why public employees turn down more lucrative careers in the private sector or work long after others are already on their commutes home: They want to help those in need. They want to be a part of a mission to do what is right. It's the job of organizational leadership to help them help us with that mission.

Another employee who is clearly an owner was honored for her involvement with our State Employee Volunteer Program, which trained 150 ODPS employees to volunteer with the American Red Cross in disaster recovery. She and several other volunteers have already deployed across the country to assist victims of natural disasters.

Without a doubt, the idea of public safety has become something more tangible for these volunteers after seeing up close what someone's worst day ever looks like. It's one thing to work in public safety from behind a desk. It's another to move debris left behind from a tornado path that was once someone's living room, or to serve dinner to a line of people with nothing left but the clothes they were wearing when emergency sirens began to wail.

What's more, the employee we recognized sees her volunteer status as a "fringe benefit" unique to her job. She would hesitate before seeking employment elsewhere because she would lose that opportunity. It's that important to her. We should strive for all our personnel to attain such a personal connection.

Ultimately, employee satisfaction is the start of a chain reaction leading to higher productivity. That means that an agency or department can dream bigger and reach higher, knowing that committed employees are on board with its goals of public service. If we are lucky enough to attract workers motivated by opportunities to help others, we'd be foolish not to prioritize their retention.

People spend about a third of their lives at a working age. Of that, half of their waking lives are spent in an office or other place of work. It's no surprise they want to spend that time meaningfully. With creative ideas and strong leadership, public employees can feel truly integral to their employer's goals. They can feel like owners. We can't offer stock options or cars, but we can offer that.