Public employees work in a cocoon of rules -- a thick layer of safeguards designed to protect them. Sadly this wet blanket of laws and practices can smother worker initiative. Instead of empowering workers, these rules demean them. The ultimate result is an unrewarding work environment that increases the price and decreases the responsiveness of government.

At a time when massive budget shortfalls demand better results, the scales are tipped heavily against allowing line workers to discover creative ways to increase productivity. The ideal solution would be to streamline operations and avoid layoffs by keeping within the normal rate of attrition. Doing this would require working in tandem with employees and their unions to boost efficiencies and help transfer employees in one area to match the needs and openings in another. But state laws, arbitration rulings, civil service classifications and collective bargaining contracts make this almost impossible. In light of budget cuts nationwide, the only option left is the sort of layoffs all these rules were supposed to avoid.

Because unions play such an influential political position in New York City, I assumed when I became deputy mayor that the work environment would include a high degree of worker empowerment and involvement. Surprisingly, the situation is precisely the reverse. These multiple levels of legal protections create a barrier to collaboration between management and labor.

This is unfortunate, because those actually doing the work have great insights on how to improve work processes, which management often fails to unlock or implement. The key to producing public value lies in giving talented line employees discretion, listening to their ideas and holding them accountable.

In the 1990s, Indianapolis received much acclaim for dramatically cutting the cost of government while significantly improving the quality of public services. In many cases, those most responsible for these remarkable gains were members of organized labor -- the workers and their union leadership.

In trying to emulate Indianapolis’ success in New York City, I spoke to local union presidents and suggested ways to wander through various departments, both physically and virtually, to capture suggestions from front-line employees.

The city’s lawyers soon warned me to beware of the “direct dealing law,” which they explained could circumscribe my ability to discuss improvements with the people who do the work. This law is intended to keep public officials from doing an end run around unions by bargaining directly with workers.

In a rule-infused, legalistic work environment, even simple conversations can become a minefield. These walls between managers and workers undermine efforts to find better, faster and cheaper ways of providing public services. Even talking to employees about how to do things better can be against the rules.

Equally demeaning is a civil service system that punishes good workers by rewarding those who are not. Do we really need the elongated disciplinary system that protects the incompetent and lazy, thus shoving work on the rest? Take the fellow who has shown up late 40 times to answer calls in New York City’s 311 call center. Don’t you think the hardworking operator next to him -- in the same union -- must feel a bit demoralized? She is treated the same way the slacker is. Is such a system fair? The vast majority of public workers do a great job. These protections are insulting to them.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to have meaningful accountability without returning to the bad old days of arbitrary political firings. In Toledo, Ohio, the teachers’ union partners with district officials first to help mentor tenured teachers with serious performance problems, but then does not stand in the way of terminating teachers who still do not make the grade. The review process is a collaborative approach governed by both union and management -- avoiding the sort of confrontations that plague so many districts. Other school districts have gone even further, introducing teacher-led schools -- the ultimate in empowerment.

Management shares responsibility as well, of course. The all-too-common hierarchical command and control approach not only trivializes labor, it also causes management to dismiss suggestions from union leaders for workplace changes. In Indianapolis and New York City, managers have too often rejected innovations that originated from the local union representing the workers who actually did the work.

Government work is knowledge work, and it takes place in an environment of rapid change. The civil service system, with its thousands of rigidly defined jobs, is an anachronism. In today’s rapidly shifting, technologically-based environment, jobs are constantly changing to meet the circumstances -- except in the public sector. The civil service testing system and “rule of three” forces promotion of those who test well, regardless of their past performance or leadership skills. The effort to make sure promotions are not based on favoritism has managed to produce a system where workers are often supervised by less capable colleagues who are good at taking tests rather than good at the job.

Regardless of whether one operates in a highly unionized civil service environment or not, the key to success for a 21st-century workforce is the same: listen to front-line workers, provide them the discretion and tools to do their jobs, and ensure accountability. When we reward the mediocre, promote the less qualified, restrict problem solving discretion and turn the public’s work into a mechanical production of commodities, we demean public servants, degrade the quality of service and cheat taxpayers.