Management's Challenge: Leadership for Changing Times

"Change is going to happen," declared Utah Governor Michael O. Leavitt in his keynote address at Governing's annual management conference in Salt Lake City.
by | January 2001

"Change is going to happen," declared Utah Governor Michael O. Leavitt in his keynote address at Governing's annual management conference in Salt Lake City. Comparing the driving forces of change to a raging fire, Leavitt challenged state and local officials: "You can fight change and lose. You can accept change and survive. Or you can lead change and prosper."

Four concerns dominated the conversations among nearly 300 state and local public officials from across the country as they worked together in the days that followed: the need to exert strong leadership, to recruit and train an innovative and capable work force, to harness technology effectively, and to continuously measure and improve performance.

The use of technology continues to permeate public-sector management at all levels as governments find increasingly sophisticated ways to apply IT to government's big jobs. At the same time, a focus on bottom-line results also continues to infuse itself into how governments assess performance at all levels--whether in delivering services or evaluating internal management.

In fact, so thoroughly have technology and performance begun to dominate the discussion, it seems easy to forget the most fundamental tenet of all, one that hasn't changed in 200-plus years of American government: While issues change and the tools of public administration evolve, it is ultimately people who get the daunting job of governing done. And it is ultimately the quality of people who take on the frequently tough and too-often thankless job of leading change in the public sector that dictates the degree to which governments successfully handle big challenges.

So while Governing's "Management 2000: Leadership for Changing Times," held in Salt Lake City last October 4-6, covered performance measurement and technology in depth, it did so with a continual emphasis on the role of leaders--from the front line to the executive office--in delivering on the promise of government. The conference theme was driven home in every session: sophisticated technology and a focus on performance notwithstanding, government would be adrift without leadership that embraces change. Management 2000 was convened by Governing and sponsored by five corporations interested in working to improve the quality of government management and services: AMS, Andersen Consulting, Enterasys Networks, Lockheed Martin IMS and NIC.

To guide public officials who wish to get ahead of the curve of change, Leavitt laid out five basic principles:

  • Lead. "You need someone who says, `This is the way we're going and this is what the outcome's going to be. And we're going to get this done.'" Collaborate. "Very few changes can be made unilaterally."
  • Question assumptions. "You might ask if some process needs to be automated, when what you should be asking is whether the process is even necessary."
  • Be realistic. "Don't underestimate the amount of time it takes to make things happen."

Learn from others' mistakes. Throughout the conference sessions, these messages were reinforced as conference participants and presenters shared their experiences of how government is managing change in an increasingly complicated and frequently politically fractious environment.


A sweeping view of the impact of technology on government was offered by Jon Fullinwider, chief information officer for Los Angeles County. "It's beyond putting forms on your Web site," said Fullinwider. "It's about fundamentally changing the way you provide information and services to your constituents." As businesses turn toward a "24/7" attitude around customer service, citizens are increasingly going to expect the same from government, said Fullinwider, a daunting challenge for government employees and bureaucracies still attuned to a "7.5/5" kind of world. But the change is coming, like it or not, noted Fullinwider. "This is an imperative, not a choice. This is going to happen with or without you."

Paul Taylor, deputy director of Washington State's Department of Information Services, warned governments to be wary of going digital just because they can. Each time a government decides to computerize some task, or allow citizens new access to services on a Web site, it ought to be done with clear, measurable goals. That means that leaders who might have preferred to simply dodge the whole issue of technology--what to digitize and what not to, leaving it up to their techno-wonks to decide--need to become directly engaged in figuring out how technology will be used to forward the goals of their organization.

Indeed, said Bette Dillehay, deputy secretary of technology for Virginia, that was "the greatest lesson of the Y2K crisis--information technology could no longer be relegated only to those individuals who work in IT. Agency leaders had to identify their priority business activities and then look at best practices with regard to managing information."

Big challenges remain, said Dillehay. One is the state's current reliance on contract employees to do IT work, which means that frequently state employees are "working side by side with contract employees making more money to do the same job." The state is currently overhauling its compensation system. And the promise of IT often takes more work than expected. "Travel reimbursement forms are now available electronically, but it still takes four weeks to get reimbursed." How will that change? With time and a change in bureaucratic attitude, Dillehay said.

There are times, though, when government decides to go for wholesale change, scrapping an existing "legacy" system in favor of something new. That daunting decision was addressed by David Ashley, acting director of administration for the state of Montana, who detailed his state's leap from its old, fragmented financial, payroll and budgeting system to a new entirely integrated "enterprise" system.

In pulling together the in-house management team to steer the change, Ashley took the best and brightest from each affected agency and made them emissaries of change. How did he get agencies to part with top talent? "I pointed out to them that what we were proposing to do would have a direct impact on their operations and that it would probably be in their best interest to have a strong advocate on the team handling design and implementation."

Also helping considerably, said Ashley, was an outside consultant, whom he credited with running interference and troubleshooting. In the end, he said, the shift went as smoothly as could be expected. The verdict is not completely in, however. The effort was expensive, and it's not clear if or when the new system will pay for itself. And to date, the state hasn't yet begun to produce the kind of statewide financial and personnel reports that the new system promises to deliver.


That technology doesn't always immediately deliver desired benefits or dramatically reduce costs is no surprise to anyone working on IT projects. But if anything, that fact has lent more credibility and power to the whole notion of figuring out exactly how to assess what government is accomplishing in relation to its cost--whether in regard to a specific project or a more general function of government.

So while IT has been both a facilitator and driver of a increasing focus on performance measures in government, performance measurement's real power has come from the influence it has exerted on getting those in government to rethink what they do and how they do it.

Annette Sandberg, chief of the Washington State Patrol, described how her entire department has shifted its approach to public safety and law enforcement, moving from reactive to proactive in pursuing its mission. The foundation for the change: developing a department-wide strategic plan aimed at achieving specific results, with those results being measured and tracked through a comprehensive database. For example, instead of just counting speeding tickets written on its interstate, the department now analyzes data gleaned system-wide in order to pinpoint specific trouble spots so that enforcement, or other safety measures, can be targeted at specific stretches of road.


Governments are combining performance measures with technology in a powerful synergy to communicate to citizens what they are getting for their tax dollars. San Diego's director of financial management, Ernie Anderson, explained how the city's performance-based budgeting effort, coupled with appropriate technology, has enabled the city to adopt a whole new approach to reporting government's actions and accomplishments to citizens via the Internet.

Likewise, Herb Hill, Virginia's associate director of planning and budget, described his state's efforts to communicate performance to citizens by way of the Web, putting about 700 governmental performance measures up on the state's home page. The measures, which all flow from the state's budget document, outline for anyone who's interested what the state expects to accomplish.

Hill's main caution: Beware of performance-indicator creep. He emphasized the importance of keeping the number of indicators tracked and reported to a reasonable level to avoid burying government and citizens in an avalanche of information.


In every session, one overriding reality came clear: No matter how creative the leadership, how innovative the technology or how focused the goals, if government isn't staffed by high-quality employees with the talent and drive to stay on the front end of change; if personnel systems are too rigid to allow government to respond quickly and strategically to changing work-place and work-force demands, then even the most cleverly applied technology, the most focused results effort or the most creative leader will have only blunted impact on how government operates.

And while some might regard "modern public personnel system" as an oxymoron, there are those who exemplify a new, proactive, flexible and creative approach to building a high-performance public-sector work force. In a session on "Making Government a Good Place to Work," Phoenix City Manager Frank Fairbanks described a host of ways the city recruits and retains a high quality work force, from its family- friendly policies that allow flex time and job sharing, to its emphasis on cross-training employees so they can feel part of a larger system.

And if rules get in the way of making government a great place to work, then change the rules, said Karen Watney, public service executive in the Kansas Division of Personnel Services. When Kansas was considering a massive overhaul of its civil service system, state personnel officials went into it with a simple, single philosophy, said Watney: "Change is good; we'll go first."

Over the past few years, Kansas has embarked on a fundamental restructuring of its personnel system, said Watney, loosening up restrictions on hiring and recruitment, reducing strictures around job titles and work assignments, and heightening the focus on strategic work-force planning. Some specific changes to date include virtually eliminating written tests as a way to qualify job candidates and allowing individual agencies to find, qualify and hire employees suited to their specific needs.

If government itself is not set up to allow workers to succeed, then hiring the best and brightest will simply lead to hordes of frustrated public-sector employees. Turning employees loose to perform is a critical step for government to take if it is to develop innovative ways to get its work done.

In Washington State, Governor Gary Locke has placed a premium on encouraging employees to experiment with new ways to do their work, said Locke's chief of staff, Joe Dear. And Dear knows about new ways to get big jobs done. He's been part of two specific initiatives that have led to Ford Foundation Innovations in American Government Awards- -one as a state official and one as a federal official.

In his session, "Encouraging Innovative Government," Dear described how a combination of recognition and new incentives can encourage employees to experiment. For example, every quarter, Governor Locke invites a half-dozen teams of employees who've come up with new and better ways to get a job done to the Governor's Mansion. Innovations and the people who advocated them are also highlighted in the state's annual report. And in Washington State, half of all savings accrued from new ideas can be rolled into the following year's budget for one- time expenditures, while the other half is invested in an education fund for employees.

Perhaps most important, said Dear, government needs to support innovators when they fail or make mistakes. Too often government punishes creativity. That philosophy needs reversing, and that requires leadership. When asked about his two innovations awards, Dear disclaimed any significant credit: "They weren't my ideas. I just cut smart people loose to try something different and supported them through the process."


That governance is a team effort was emphasized regularly during the conference. Whether it was Frank Fairbanks talking about pushing decision making down to cross-trained groups of front-line employees, or Joe Dear describing his approach to supporting innovation. But the power of one was also on display at the conference. One person in a position to argue for a new way of thinking or doing can make a world of difference. And that message was brought home with particular power during two specific presentations at the conference: the one that opened it and the one that closed it.

In his welcoming remarks, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson put on a display of non-status-quo thinking that certainly sets him apart from scores of other elected officials. From his calls to rethink sentencing policies, to his admonition that unbridled sprawl is a direct threat to the nation's quality of life, Anderson showed a willingness to take tough public stands in direct opposition to powerful political interests. And if fighting for new ways of approaching seemingly intractable public problems is the true measure of a leader, Anderson's example set the tone for the conference.

Oakland City Manager Robert Bobb's closing remarks struck the right note for how public-sector leaders need to go about effecting those changes in which they believe. In his presentation, Bobb described the remarkable progress that's been made in Oakland, a city that many had long viewed as a classic urban "basket case." The key to that progress? A collaborative effort between a seemingly very odd couple: a high-visibility and high-energy elected official--Mayor Jerry Brown- -and a limelight-dodging, low-key appointee--Robert Bobb.

What many predicted would deteriorate into turf battles and personality clashes has actually evolved into one of the more effective and dynamic partnerships in recent urban governance, as Oakland pulls out of its decades-long battle against crime and a decaying inner-city economy.

It is their success in working together--the power of one times two-- that most vividly served to re-emphasize the fundamental maxim for leading change that Governor Michael Leavitt outlined in his opening keynote address: Individual leadership may be the fuel of positive change in government, but it is ultimately the ability to work collaboratively that makes the engine purr.


The prickly relationship of public officials and the press was explored by Regina Williams, city manager of Norfolk, Virginia, Neil Heinen, editorial director for WISC-TV in Madison, Wisconsin, and Jill Chamberlin, now with the University of Florida after a long career as a public-sector press aide.

Williams' message was straightforward: If public officials want good coverage, it is their job to establish a positive working relationship with reporters. Heinen reiterated Williams' point: "If you want to work with me, get to know me." Don't use your press people as a shield in times of crisis, said Jill Chamberlain. Use them as partners in developing specific strategies and strategic relationships.


Break bad news yourself, don't leave the press to ferret it out. By breaking the news, you gain control over first impressions and build a reputation as honest, open and proactive.

Don't keep half-developed projects or plans a secret. Opening up the workings will increase understanding.

Don't ridicule or pick fights with the press; you will lose.

Letters to the editor are almost always a bad idea. If you feel you've been treated unfairly, take it up privately with the reporter and editor.

Contact producers at broadcast outlets along with beat reporters; they are the news quarterback at many television and radio stations.

Welcome your press person to your inner circle.

But probably the best idea came from Williams, as she summed up her view of the often fractious relationship between the two worlds: "I would have public officials take a journalism course and I would have journalists take a course in public administration."