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Is a 40-Hour Workweek <i>Enough</i> in Government?

Not for most local officials. But they may not all be using their time wisely.

Do you have trouble getting all your work done in a 35- to 40-hour week?

More than half (53 percent) of local government officials do, according to a survey by the Governing Exchange, a research arm of Governing. It polled nearly 300 executives and senior managers in cities, counties and special districts. 

Of the people who said they struggle to cross everything off their to-do lists, 69 percent regularly work more than 40 hours with no additional compensation. Another 10 percent get the job done with overtime pay, and 21 percent said they just don’t finish the tasks they’re expected to perform.

Despite the obvious importance of this issue in state and local governments, which spend a significant percent of their revenues on personnel, there’s been little analysis about how to help employees use their time more productively. 

“Most managers don’t have any idea of how their people use their time at work,” said Karen Thoreson, president of the Alliance for Innovation. “Honestly, they might not even have a good handle on how they use their own time.”

There are a number of activities that respondents believe take up too much of their time. The most common culprits were meetings, paperwork, email, data collection and reporting, and employee performance reviews. 

Obviously, all these tasks are critical to the smooth functioning of any government entity. It’s doubtful that public employees oppose any of these functions, per se. They just feel that they’re voracious time-consumers that leave too few hours for other important things.

What are those important things? According to the survey, officials say they would better “accomplish the goals of the job” if they had more hours for the following:

  • planning future activities and programs (46 percent agreed)
  • analyzing data -- as opposed to gathering and collecting it (34 percent)
  • personal professional development (28 percent)
  • interacting with peers in government (27 percent)
  • brainstorming (26 percent)
When similar surveys have been conducted in the past, the results have been unsettling. Take the Colorado Child Welfare Workload Study. Over four weeks in 2014, 1,300 child welfare workers in 54 counties recorded how much time they spent on different activities. The results: 37.5 percent of their time was spent on documentation and administration, 5 percent on parent and family contact, and 4 percent on child contact. 

“We knew there needed to be a readjustment,” said Reggie Bicha, director of the Colorado Department of Human Services. 

Over the next two years, they increased staffing, implemented a new child welfare information system, and provided workers with mobile phones and tablets so they could make the best use of all the hours they spend waiting around courthouses and hospitals. 

Since then, Bicha said, “caseworkers have been ecstatic about having these tools.”

A focus on time management has also helped the Department of Parks and Recreation in Pearland, Texas. About a year ago, Christopher Orlea, the department’s new director, decided that a reimagined approach to the standard employee-supervisor relationship could dramatically increase productivity and reduce redundant communications. First, instead of having the same conversation with different people, he created a document where staff can include any necessary news or information. That document is then emailed out each week to all relevant parties. 

Then, Orlea moved away from a typical hierarchy and gave all employees more autonomy. Granting them the power to make more decisions in effect reduced the need for many meetings. 

A year later, Orlea said morale has also gotten a big boost, and personally, he said he’s “gained an enormous chunk of my day back.” 

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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