The People Aren't the Problem

A Case Study of One Public Employee
by | February 8, 2012 AT 6:55 PM

Our recent series of posts has been our argument that the problems of government are not people problems. Sure, as a large organization, government certainly has people problems. But at the root of the issues, you won't find a team of people who have banded together to make sure everything grinds to a halt.

We all know people who prefer playing solitaire online to helping clients in line. We see them do half the work of our high performers while constantly seeming to find every occasion to take a break, take a sick third-cousin to the doctor, or generally dismiss their responsibilities in favor of anything else. We secretly hope that their work ethic catches up to them at the next performance appraisal, or that the new boss won't tolerate such weak efforts. But year after year they slide by, alternating between watching their automated retirement clocks wind down and awaiting closing time. We find ourselves thinking, "Surely if we could trim this fat, we'd see improvement." And indeed, we might. But not radical improvement.

This is a tough pill for some of us to choke down, particularly when we know our workloads increase to pick up underperformers' slack and our pay is equal to the guy who is selling baseball cards on Craigslist instead of pulling his weight.

I admit I tend to be a little Pollyanna when it comes to people. I doubt any more than 3 percent of these slackers started their positions with the hope that Facebook could entertain them for eight hours while they wait to go home. Who wants to look back on a career of little accomplishment and nothing to show for a third of your life? I prefer to think that at one time, these people were enthusiastic and looking forward to work, before twisted-up pipes beat them down and slowly turned them from employees looking to help people, into employees looking to stick it to "the man." What do I base this on? My own experience. I've had government jobs where I was so far removed from any result the department was getting that I lost my inspiration to do good work. I tried to change things, but my ideas fell on deaf ears, and little changed to make work better. Soon, I spent equal amounts of time looking for a new job and doing the job I had. I was a bad employee, and, had I stayed there, I would probably be a bitter jaded mess by now, waiting for cutbacks to offer me an early out.

It's not just me. I have seen this same thing with peers, and most recently in an improvement team I worked with in the past several months. What follows is a dramatized case study. However, the facts are taken right from a real client. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, but this is what Ken and I are seeing across the country.

Robin pulls into the office about ten past 8:00. Her shift started at 7:30, but as she speed-walks past her supervisor's open door, she thinks, "They're lucky I showed up at all."

She means it. Every morning when the alarm clock goes off she finds herself dreading the day. There are more than a dozen open cases on her desk and before week's end she can expect more. This is not how the office is supposed to run. It's nothing like how she was trained in orientation two years ago, and she's not sure how long she can deal with the stress.

She flips on the monitor and the emails begin to load in a constant scroll down the screen. Half a dozen are flagged from the automated system. Four more cases have been open for more than 60 days and she receives reminders that they need to be closed. "Apparently the overflowing inbox is an insufficient reminder," she says under her breath, and her neighbor laughs in agreement, knowing exactly what she's referring to. The other messages are from the administration office. There is a new form that must be included in all case folders. Robin decides not to even open that message until her supervisor tells her to start using it.

"I have to close at least one case today," she says, less than convincingly.

Then the phone rings. There's a child in the hospital with a crack in her skull. She recognizes the family name from her files. She's got just hours to respond and assess the situation. Paperwork will have to wait.

Recently, I worked with a phenomenal group of people to take a fresh look at how child abuse investigations are done in their area. What made this effort different from many others we have seen was that the catalyst for change was not initiated by a high-profile fatality case. Instead, this was brought on by a leader who had seen some success fixing pipes in other areas and wanted to give it a try in her new shop.

A few interesting things about their pipes. First, amazing people work in them.

Ken and I have expressed our appreciation for the men and women who staff the phone lines, investigate abuse claims and work with kids and families to increase their ability to succeed without abuse or neglect. In addition to knocking on the doors of hundreds of homes a year, not knowing what conditions are going to be like on the other side of the door, they have a level of dedication like few other professions. Despite mountainous backlog and low salaries, they routinely put in hours that are typically reserved for high-salary CEOs burning the candle at both ends. They take work home on the weekends and they make careers and lifestyles out of helping kids. Amazing people in the pipes.

I met scores of people like Robin. They hate-love their job. They love helping kids and families. They hate knowing they cannot keep up with the workload. They drop everything when they get the call, and they live knowing that when the inevitable fatality hits, it's their neck on the line if one "i" is not dotted, or one "t" not crossed.

The second interesting thing about their pipes? Their pipes are full.

Each new report that comes in to the call center takes an average of 22 hours of work to complete. This number assumes that an investigator could do it all in one sitting. This number assumes everyone made their appointments and that police, doctors and supervisors are available for consultations when needed. Each case requires 22 hours, and each Robin gets three to five new cases a week. You don't have to be Olga Ladyzhenskaya to do the math.

Want to know why we keep seeing stories of case workers with enormous caseloads and families not being visited as policy dictates? Because we cram 66-110 hours of work into a 40-hour work week. The pipe is full, yet the water keeps on flowing in.

Even the best employees cannot keep that pace for long. It's not a people problem. Bad employees make it worse, no question. But removing them won't make it better.

Part 2 of Robin's story to come later this week.