When it comes to governing in the United States, "there is more that unites us than divides us," declared Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, as he welcomed more than 350 high-level local and state officials to Governing's annual management conference, held in Baltimore October 10-12. Given the recent tragedy of September 11, O'Malley's message held particular power at a moment when the importance of government in American life had been brought into stark relief. And if anyone needed an illustration of just how committed state and local officials are to meeting the new governing challenge, there was the fact that this was Governing's best-attended management conference ever.

"Managing Performance 2001," which was sponsored by Accenture, ACS, AMS and Microsoft, along with Enterasys Networks, SAP and Tip Interactive, drew officials from 42 states and dozens of cities, counties and regional governments.

O'Malley's message--that emphasizing a common purpose and focusing on results are the best way to get government back to the basics of good management and high performance--set the tone for two days of sessions aimed at helping officials build organizational capacity through the twin fundamentals of collaboration and accountability. From panels on improving labor/management relations to speakers covering the motivational power of clear organizational purpose, attendees were treated to high-level advice and ideas in sessions that frequently evolved into free-wheeling discussions in which the audience was as involved as the presenters.

In his session on "Transforming Government Performance," Bill Leighty, executive director of the Virginia State Retirement System, described his experiences in getting two agencies to refocus on the imperative of public service. In each case, communicating to front- line staff the direct impact they have on the lives of citizens was essential to the organization's transformation.

In the case of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, for example, Leighty de-scribed the slow, assembly-line approach that workers had been taking to processing a form related to suspending the licenses of chronic drunk drivers. As a way to inspire those workers, Leighty asked a representative of Mothers Against Drunk Driving to tell them a story: It was about a drunk driver who had been involved in a fatal accident, an accident that had occurred because the state hadn't processed the paperwork quickly enough to suspend his license. That very day, attitudes and performance began to improve. Now, instead of saying that their job is to process forms, those same workers proudly declare, "We save people's lives."

That ability to humanize what otherwise might be viewed as drudge work has been the hallmark of Leighty's management style. When he moved to the Virginia pension system, he found an organization so mired in the minutia of administrative process that it had lost sight of its important role in the lives of thousands of Virginia retirees and pensioners. And so Leighty once again took to the hallways of his organization to bring the light of purpose to his employees.

While Leighty makes such transformation sound easy, the reality in too many public-sector organizations is that the clutter of everyday work frequently gets in the way of a focus on the real purpose. One of the chronic sources of organizational clutter all too typically comes in the form of tense or flat-out-awful labor/management relations.

That was certainly the case in the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services a number of years ago. In their session, "Working With Labor to Maximize Performance," Bill Denihan and Jim McCafferty, the agency's former and current directors, respectively, and Dawn Dryer, vice president of the union representing Cuyahoga County's front-line social workers, described how labor and management came together to patch up a very bad relationship in the name of improved organizational performance.

Before the change in attitude and relationship, said Dryer, it was a classic case of non-stop battling between labor and management. As a result, the social services department was borderline dysfunctional, focused on infighting rather than on helping kids and families. Caseloads were backed up, adoptions were down, community relations were terrible and the organization had a 40 percent turnover rate among front-line workers. "People weren't walking out the door," said Dryer, "they were running."

That all began to change when the county commission turned to Bill Denihan, who had been Cleveland's interim police chief, to take over the troubled agency on an interim basis.

In trying to get the organization back on track, said Denihan, he didn't do anything fancy, he just got back to basics: refocusing on the mission of the department and bringing labor into the discussion of how to get the job done.

The relationship didn't have an altogether smooth start. One of the first things he did was take a bunch of the employees' parking places away and give them to people who were coming in to ask about adopting kids. But rather than setting off a new round of labor/management hostility, Denihan's unilateral parking decision actually sent a powerful and positive message: that the organization would be getting back to its mission of serving the community, not accommodating the convenience of employees. Accompanying that renewed emphasis on customers, Denihan actively reached out to labor to try to rebuild a cooperative relationship.

Fortunately, a new labor team was in place and ready to respond. Tired of the old-style, combative approach to labor relations, Dryer and several colleagues engineered a coup in the union, whereby an entirely different group of labor leaders emerged, a group dedicated not merely to protecting the interests of workers but also to focusing on the performance of the organization.

It turned out to be the beginning of real change in Cuyahoga County, providing yet another example of just how powerful refocusing an organization on its real purpose can be. Grievances have dropped from dozens a year to barely a handful, while adoptions have doubled. Turnover is now below 10 percent, while caseloads have been cut in half. Departmental morale, meanwhile, is the highest it has been in years, a change in attitude that will be key, says Jim McCafferty, the current executive director, as the department faces looming budget struggles.

But it's not just refocusing people on organizational purpose that keeps government occupied these days. There are more fundamental worries, such as simply making sure government has the people it needs to do the work. While a number of sessions focused on new and successful applications of technology and performance measurement to the work of government--from e-purchasing to competitive contracting-- one particularly well-attended session focused on the growing problem of keeping government staffed up.

In their session on "Transforming the Work Force," Ann Eilbracht, the personnel chief for Minneapolis, and Timothy Giles, head of employee services for the city, discussed the critical issue of how to re-staff government in the face of impending retirements. All governments in all program and policy areas are facing serious brain drain.

In response, Minneapolis has embarked on a number of initiatives, said Eilbracht, including an in-depth, work-force-needs analysis, along with beefed-up recruiting and a streamlined hiring system.

Over the past two years, every department completed a "work force action plan" that allowed managers to identify employees who might soon be leaving and also analyzed what sort of skills the department would need to be building up in the next few years, given the current and future mission of the organization. The result, said Eilbracht, were "gap analyses" that highlighted where recruitment would need to be focused in order to keep the organization fully functional.

A big part of that recruitment strategy was to market the city as a great place to work. The city even produced an entertaining video featuring the mayor doing a David Letterman-style "10 Reasons Why You'd Want to Work for Minneapolis."

Meanwhile, the city has streamlined its hiring process considerably: Where it used to take 100 days to hire someone, it now takes less than 50--a number that Eilbracht acknowledges is still too high but is a vast improvement. The city also has worked to retrain certain retirees so they can be hired back in areas of high need. For example, a former police officer has returned to the city as an expert in forensic science.

To further improve the city's standing as an employer, and to boost staff retention, the city did some simple things, noted Timothy Giles. For example, the city made new employees eligible for health benefits after just one month instead of the usual six months, and focused on raising public-employee pay; it's up over 15 percent in the past few years.

But no matter who is working for government--today or tomorrow--one thing is certain: The jobs they are expected to do are getting more complicated and demanding. Particularly in a post-September 11 world, the need for government to operate seamlessly, flexibly and creatively has never been so acute. As Governing's Editor and Publisher Peter Harkness noted in his introductory remarks, "from ensuring public safety here and abroad to stimulating the economy, people are more and more going to be looking to government to step in and take a central role."

That may be a daunting challenge, but as Mayor O'Malley noted, while we live in a seemingly fractious and factionalized world, it's a world in which people actually have a lot in common. "I have yet to meet someone who wants to live someplace that's dirty and dangerous," he said.