Why Is Public-Employee Morale So Bad?

The private sector has learned the value of engaging its workers. Government needs to take advantage of that.
August 23, 2016
By Howard Risher  |  Contributor
Consultant focusing on public-sector pay and performance

Too many public employers are missing out on something important and valuable. Government should be a great place to work. Public service should make for very satisfying careers. We know from studies that where that's true, employees perform at higher levels.

But the practices of too many public employers are stuck in a past era. Reports of low morale among government workers have become common, and public employers are experiencing particular problems attracting and retaining millennial workers. Fully 92 percent of state and local government human-resources managers rank recruiting and retaining qualified personnel as the most important issue they face, according to a recent survey by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. And Gallup reports that morale problems in the form of low levels of engagement are costing state and local governments $100 billion a year.

Morale, engagement, satisfaction -- the words vary, but what we know is that highly engaged employees are emotionally committed to making their unit or organization a success. Companies with highly engaged workers have higher productivity, higher quality, lower costs and lower turnover. Their workers look forward to coming to work each day.

That reflects a dramatic change -- it's best understood as a revolution -- in management philosophy across the private sector. Through all but the last decade of the 20th century, workers were seen as a cost. Now they increasingly are managed as assets, and the goal is to utilize their capabilities fully.

Don't take my word for it. As a search on Amazon reveals, this revolution has been documented in more than 4,900 books on the subject of high-performance organizations. In contrast, a search for books on "high-performance public organizations" produces just 51 titles. Clearly this is a problem of management and leadership.

It's easy to blame poor government morale on factors like pay freezes and politicians' public-employee bashing. Those certainly are part of the problem, but the real issue is far broader, starting with the differences in background between leaders in the public and private sectors. Most leaders in business have worked their way up from lower- level jobs. Their early training was in business school. They have developed needed managerial skills and managed increasingly larger groups of employees.

Elected leaders, in contrast, frequently have had no meaningful experience managing groups of employees. They were attracted to government and ran for office because of an interest in policy issues.

Corporate leaders also benefit from the work of business schools, whose departments are focused on improving some aspect of company performance. It's a different story for schools of government, whose faculties typically concentrate on public-policy issues. Even the small group interested in performance generally focuses on executive issues and management systems, not the workforce.

Another factor for government is the bureaucracy, with all of its deeply entrenched delays and frustrations. That used to be the case for business as well -- until the recession of the early 1990s. To reduce costs and make their companies more responsive to their markets, they moved forcefully to eliminate layers of management.

That was followed by an era of reengineering -- essentially, non-managerial employees being tasked with solving problems. What was "participative management" became empowerment. Pay practices evolved to recognize and reward employees for what they know and their contributions, not arbitrary measures of job value. It's a very different management philosophy.

Today employee empowerment is widely accepted across business sectors. Eliminating layers of management broadens the "span of control," making close supervision impossible. Many workers rarely see their supervisors. In the 1970s, a client of mine tested the idea of self-managed teams in a new plant. Workers had no supervisors. They loved it. One thanked God for the job.

Similar situations are still unusual in government, but that doesn't have to be the case. As the revolution in the private sector has demonstrated and research shows, managers (in their role as supervisors) have more impact on performance than any other factor does. As in sports, coaching is a key to improved performance. Naming new supervisors based on technical skills or seniority has never made sense.

Traditional civil-service systems, with all of their rule-bound inflexibility, add to the problem. No employer starting with a clean slate would consider the same practices. It's not a secret that there are numerous ways to reform civil service that would improve the work experience and employee performance without diminishing protection against politically based discrimination.

In short, we know how to create high-performance organizations. The information is readily available. And we know that employees want to grow and be challenged. They want regular feedback and support for their development. They want to be recognized for their contributions.

Managers are limited in making this happen. Only leaders can. They are the ones who need to initiate reform and begin investing in the future.