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

Stop Wasting Time


Federal employees often complain about how much of their time is wasted-by their bosses. It's a sweet irony of many workers' 9-to-5 routines that the people responsible for making sure they get their jobs done are the ones most responsible for making sure their jobs don't get done. By dint of their positions on the org chart, managers can demand employees' attention even when doing that pulls workers away from the tasks they need to complete.

Simultaneously, support personnel whose job is to provide employees with the means to get their work done frequently can be more of an impediment than a help. Support functions can become so bureaucratic that rather than clear the way, they get in the way of productivity. Here are few tips for being part of the time solution rather than part of the problem.

Keep your e-mails short and sweet. There are occasions for great rhetorical flourishes-awards, retire-ment parties-but not in day-to-day e-mails. You might be the poet laureate of your office, but you waste people's time by couching routine directives in philosophical waxing. Save your favorite Peter Drucker or Deepak Chopra quote for the quarterly all-hands meeting.

Speaking of meetings, they must be moderated. They should start on time, stick to the agenda and end on time. Tell employees in advance not only when a meeting will begin, but also when it will wrap up. Let them know what's on the agenda and provide as much information as possible beforehand so they'll have time to absorb it and be prepared to discuss the items listed. When you hand out new material during the meeting, employees will need to spend time processing it instead of using the face-to-face time to discuss it.

Make sure people understand your instructions. If you expect precise results, don't give employees a vague mandate. In particular, remember that new employees aren't accustomed to your style and can't read your mind the way longtime employees can. You can pair newbies with veterans who can explain expectations and answer questions that new employees might be too timid to ask you. And veterans can be sounding boards for new employees to use to make sure they correctly understand. Cut needless reviews.

Not everyone in middle management has to sign off on every piece of paper. Some quality assurance, of course, is valuable, but im-agine how much time is wasted across government as employees wait for their work assignment to gather more signatures than the Declaration of Independence. This is a problem up and down federal organizations. The Health Care Financing Administration admini-strator "can't go to the bath-room without four or five people signing off on it," a former Medicare chief told Government Executive a few years ago.

Run the traps. Part of your role as a manager is to make sure your workers have the tools they need to do their jobs. So talk to them about the administrivia that eats up their day. Is the supply shop unnecessarily stingy with paper and pencils? See if you can work out a compromise. Has the finance office created a mind-numbing expense approval system? Push for a streamlining effort.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.


Brian Friel is founder of One Nation Analytics, an independent research, analytics and consulting firm for the federal market.

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