December 10, 2012 By Bill Schrier
I've worked as a public sector employee and a manager of government technology workers for three decades. While public sector workers share many attributes and work attitudes with their private sector counterparts, there are also some things unique to public sector employment. In writing this, I was inspired by two recent blog posts by Steve Radick including "Ten Things You Should be Saying to Your Boss."
First, government is, in the minds of many people, synonymous with bureaucracy. I've blogged about this before, but all large organizations, public or private, are painted with the bureaucracy brush. The bigger the organization, the more bureaucracy – and this applies to banks, manufacturing companies, the software industry and, well, everything where there are at least two people working together.
What should public employees be saying to their CIO bosses? When I was a CIO in a large City government, what should my folks have been telling me? And again, thanks Steve Radick for the inspiration for many of these. www.steveradick.com
1. "Don't worry about it – I got it." It is really great when, as a manager, I know an employee is going to handle something – take care of it, keep people informed and get the job done. Erin Devoto, my deputy at the City of Seattle and now the acting Chief Technology Officer (CTO) there, is a living, breathing, example of this. She took so many projects and drove forward to make sure they were accomplished.
2. "Here's a problem - here's what I'd recommend and why." Some of my worst experiences as a public sector manager were "monkey transfers". That’s where an employee recognized a problem or potential issue, brought it to my attention and then walked out of the office – transferred the monkey from her/his back to mine. But some of my best experiences were when employees recognized an issue, worked with their team to brainstorm some potential courses of action, and laid them out for a decision. Usually those employees, after the decision was made, walked out of the office saying #1 above – "I'll handle it". What a relief. I'm going to especially call out Mr. Stan Wu at the City of Seattle on this one, as he did this many times for me on projects ranging from fiber optic networks to radio networks and others.
3. "What can I do to help?" There are few better experiences for anyone – employee or boss – than being faced with a difficult situation, and having the team come together to figure out a solution and implement it. Willingness to proactively help address issues or problems – not waiting to be tasked with an assignment, is a hallmark of a great employee.
4. "Playing the 'Angel's Advocate' ..." I've been in so many meetings which go on and on as employees raise one potential issue after another with a proposed course of action or an idea. I used to cringe when someone said "Playing the Devil's Advocate …" and then went on to describe some low probability stupid scenario about how a course of action might fail. It's almost like the employees had a pool or a bet on who could come up with the most issues or the most unlikely scenarios to kill the plan. Give me an "Angel's Advocate" – a proponent – any day of the week. And if it is a legitimate issue or problem with the idea, suggest a way to mitigate it (see #2 above).
5. "I just read/watched/heard … and it got me thinking that…" As the boss, I love new ideas, and with all the changes in technology we've seen in the last 20 years, such ideas abound. In government it is relatively easy to find ideas which haven't been tried – usually private sector companies are first to adopt new technologies such as online services or mobile applications. Figuring out creative ways to use those in the government's service to constituents is something every employee can do.
6. "This idea has some risks, here they are, but I’d like to try doing it … " Government employees are notoriously risk adverse. I never quite understood that – most are protected by civil service or seniority rules or union bargaining agreements. Perhaps the risk aversion rises from fear of a newspaper headline or wasting taxpayer money. Frankly, I think bad bosses have a role to play too – ones who steal ideas for themselves or have a negative attitude about anything new. In any case, an employee who is willing to risk their reputation on an innovative solution can be a breath of fresh air.
7. "You know how we've been doing X? Why do we do it that way?" This one needs little explanation. We call it "paving the cowpath" when we apply technology or automate some business process without examining how to improve the process itself. Whether it be procurement or personnel actions or decision making or delivering a service, we should always look at the process first. This is even more important in government organizations where culture can be hard to change and existing business processes have very deep roots. No amount of technology or automation will materially improve an outmoded process.
8. "How am I doing?" Frankly, I used to cringe at employees who asked me this. Giving feedback – and honest feedback – is hard. Many employees don't want to hear bad news and many bosses don’t want to give it. But regular sessions of feedback are much more important than formal performance evaluations. And, of course, the flip side of this coin is willingness to accept that feedback, including #9 below. And employees don't need to wait for the boss to initiate such conversations.
9. "Here's what I learned and how I'll do it better next time". It is hard for many bosses to give feedback to employees on performance. It's much easier if the employee recognizes their own strengths and weaknesses and proactively brings them forward for discussion. This requires, of course, a high level of self-awareness, which is difficult for many people. (I had a long-standing employee who was totally delusional about his technical skills and abilities.) Going through post-mortems on projects and honest self-evaluation is important, and then vetting it with the boss is, again, more important than formal performance evaluations.
10. "Here's how I feel about that … " It takes a lot of guts for an employee to come forward to his/her supervisor, manager or director and give their honest opinion. The other side of this coin is that your opinion should be well considered and logical, not just some unsupported personal opinion. And it should be YOUR opinion, as an employee. I hated it when an employee said "And everyone else feels this way too". Oh yeah? Where are they at? And who appointed you as the spokesperson? Of course, some supervisors don't want to hear what their employees have to say, which is a subject for a different blog post.
11. "Yes, Boss, sometimes I know you'll move my cheese … " Change is a constant in any technology organization, or, indeed, any organization which uses technology at all. Whole industries are undergoing upheaval – just ask anyone in the newspaper, photography or land-line telephone business. Employees need to expect change, even in government, and sometimes it won’t be an improvement. But, conversely, the boss needs to explain the changes and the rationale for them.
And speaking of bosses, just like with Steve Radick's columns, my next blog post will be about what the CIO or boss should be saying to Public Sector Employees.