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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Misery Loves Bureaucracy: Why Technology Hasn’t Saved Government

In an era when technology offers countless ways to improve all kinds of processes, that’s not always the case in government. More often than not, new technologies don’t solve the problems government officials want to fix.

The reason for this is simple, but hard to resolve: Information-sharing technology in particular works best in a culture of openness and collaboration; bureaucratic cultures prize secrecy and hierarchy. Just introducing new tools without first changing the underlying culture in which people use the tools results in miserable, checked-out workers who drag down productivity and morale.

The technology-culture mismatch isn’t the only reason government officials are dissatisfied, but it is one of the largest. According to a recent survey of government agencies in more than 70 countries by Deloitte, 85 percent of public sector organizations cite culture as an obstacle to integrating technology. In the United States, the Office of Personnel Management’s 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey showed only 31 percent of employees felt creativity and innovation were valued and just 37 percent felt they had the right tools to get their jobs done.

While few would expect the federal bureaucracy to produce the happiest places to work, the level...

If Work Dominated Your Every Moment, Would Life Be Worth Living?

Imagine that work had taken over the world. It would be the centre around which the rest of life turned. Then all else would come to be subservient to work. Then slowly, almost imperceptibly, anything else – the games once played, the songs hitherto sung, the loves fulfilled, the festivals celebrated – would come to resemble, and ultimately become, work. And then there would come a time, itself largely unobserved, when the many worlds that had once existed before work took over the world would vanish completely from the cultural record, having fallen into oblivion.

And how, in this world of total work, would people think and sound and act? Everywhere they looked, they would see the pre-employed, employed, post-employed, underemployed and unemployed, and there would be no one uncounted in this census. Everywhere they would laud and love work, wishing each other the very best for a productive day, opening their eyes to tasks and closing them only to sleep. Everywhere an ethos of hard work would be championed as the means by which success is to be achieved, laziness being deemed the gravest sin. Everywhere among content-providers, knowledge-brokers, collaboration architects and heads of new divisions would be heard ceaseless chatter...

If You’re Calling Your Work Team Family, You’re Doing It Wrong

It’s not uncommon to hear bosses refer to their employees as a “family.” I used to do it, too. The characterization can seem like a harmless way to generate camaraderie and community.

But your coworkers are not actually “like a family.” You’re born into your family; where you work and who you hire involves making choices. And encouraging employees to think of one another as family can have negative consequences.

I first realized the dangers of calling employees “family” early on at my company, when I had to let several people go for performance reasons. These were gregarious people who were beloved by their coworkers, and when their teams found out about the firings, they were absolutely beside themselves. My decision was widely questioned. I realized we had created an environment where the unconditional love and support for longtime colleagues clouded our collective ability to make smart business and hiring decisions. We needed to make a change.

Instead, I now describe our team as a tribe. It’s a concept made popular by Seth Godin— and one that I’m actively drawing from to bring our team together through shared values, purpose and performance rather than some kind...

The Psychology Behind Performance-Based Bonuses is Total Bunk

Compensation is an arcane art. Everyone in business knows how a company determines compensation is extremely important to its health and culture, and yet nobody ever seems to be happy about it. Adding to this problem is the additional fact that nobody wants to sound like a jerk, and so there’s a strong tendency for companies to spout niceties and platitudes, regardless of empiricism, even though the evidence probably suggests they should get rid of their employees’ performance bonuses—not just to cut costs, but to make them happier and more productive.

Performance-based pay is an article of faith in the business world. GE’s Jack Welch, one of the most respected managers in the universe, became legendary among other things for his changes to performance pay in GE. To him, much of the art of management boiled down to giving employees the right goals (not too hard, not too easy) and then the right (financial) incentives to reach those goals.

To be fair, there’s been a rethinking of the idea in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when it was thought that the culture of fat bonuses led bankers to behave recklessly. More profoundly, if there...

Data Show Government is Not a Great Place to Work

Every year, the Partnership for Public Service partners with Deloitte to identify the best places to work in the federal government. The rankings started in 2003 and are based on data from the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. The message from the report, released in December, was positive: the survey data “show the largest yearly increase in the history of the Best Places to Work rankings.”

However, click on “Analysis” and you’ll find a different story. That section takes you to “Overall Findings and Private Sector Comparison.” The FEVS includes 28 questions that are the same as those in private sector engagement surveys conducted by Mercer l Sirota. The average private sector score was 78, compared with the federal average of 62 (rounded to the nearest whole number).  

The Comparison is Telling

The question by question comparisons confirm government has a problem. Overall the work experience in government is considerably less positive. (In contrast to the Gallup Q12 survey, these surveys do not have an explicit “negative” or “disengaged” measure—so “less positive” is applicable as a descriptor.)

The federal scores are more positive than private sector scores on only two questions:  

  • “Considering everything, how satisfied are you with...