Why Government Must Change Its Management Model

Bureaucracy is getting worse, not better.

COVID-19 and the sudden shift to working remotely has accomplished something presidential initiatives, commissions and consultants failed to do—it’s forced work units and their managers to rethink working relationships. There is no time or reason to do another study; agencies have to make it work.

On the positive side, this could finally provide the impetus to shed bureaucratic practices. As John Kamensky argued in a recent column, it’s time to “strengthen unit-level health and performance.” That’s also the theme of a new book, Humanocracy, a “passionate, data-driven argument for excising bureaucracy and replacing it with something better.” The book advances the ideas in Kamensky’s column in some important ways. 

The Need to ‘Excise Bureaucracy’

Government today is confronted by multiple workforce concerns: the abrupt need for highly qualified, dedicated front line workers to battle COVID; redefined manager-employee working relationships imposed by remote working; the continuing aging of the workforce; a work experience that by all reports contributes to early turnover of new hires; and a need for improved performance. Government is also affected by demographic trends, the changing career choices of the next generation of workers, and talent shortages in a number of fields. Looking ahead, in the absence of needed change, the workforce problems will deepen and performance will deteriorate.

The answers to these problems will not be found in the civil service system. The system solidified the work environment of years past. It’s a barrier to change and to addressing workforce concerns. 

The cost of bureaucracy is incalculable. Bureaucracies have “an authoritarian power structure and suffocating rules, enforce conformity and are congenitally risk averse.” They “wedge people into narrow roles, stymy personal growth and have toxic political cultures.” In an appendix the authors list 10 questions from a Bureaucratic Mass Index Survey, the first of which asks the number of layers to the top executive. The layers in federal agencies should be a red flag. However, as the authors state, “suggest abolishing the trappings of bureaucracy—the multiple management layers and all-powerful staff groups—and your colleagues will scoff at your naivete.” 

The Office of Management and Budget estimates from a recent survey that 500 million hours are spent each year performing ‘low value’ work. The price tag for the wasted hours exceeds $25 billion but bureaucracy also delays responses when problems emerge, pushes decision making to people who do not have direct knowledge of the problems, impedes innovation, and frustrates employees and those seeking government services.

Bureaucracy is getting worse, not better. From 2016 to 2019, government employment at all levels increased by only 1.5%, to 21.9 million. But over the same three-year period, Operations Specialties Mangers [a vague Bureau of Labor Statistics title] increased by 14.6%. Adding managers does not improve performance; they increase control. While the pandemic has forced some public employers to lay off workers and impose hiring freezes, when the 2020 employment data are reported it’s unlikely the number of managers will have fallen.

Developing a Change Management Strategy

Extirpating (yes, that’s the right word) government’s bureaucracy will be far more difficult than in the private sector, where continually changing markets force businesses to be flexible and open to modifying their operating strategies. Three decades ago, to respond to growing global competition, companies initiated delayering and shifted more power to front line workers. Change has been a constant ever since. In government, during the same period, several reform initiatives, starting with President Clinton’s National Performance Review, largely failed.

Kamensky’s column is based on the report from the National Academy of Public Administration, “Strengthening Organizational Health and Performance in Government.” Both the report and Humanacracy emphasize the practical value of initiating change at the local unit level. 

The report, however, differs from the book on a vital core issue—employee empowerment. The report emphasizes the need for “a strategic reorientation that makes front-line managers the focal point.” That is to say, it’s managers that should be empowered. The idea that government managers are not empowered says a great deal.

In contrast, the descriptions of company strategies in Humanacracy highlight their reliance on empowered, often self-managed teams and workers. The evidence from business confirms that freeing employees to make job-related decisions is basic to a high performance culture. 

But for government, both the book and the column are silent on a key point. The needed changes in the work environment and working relationships have to occur at the unit level but it's also true that leaders have to champion the planned changes. Far too often, elected and appointed leaders have little experience managing in large organizations. In their drive to institute new policies, they fail to consider the importance of building commitment. They have never had a reason to develop leadership skills. The history of failed reform initiatives highlights the need for effective leadership.

To gain agreement for needed change, organizations must start by developing a vision statement. That starts with documenting the organization’s operational problems, states the goals in addressing the problems, and describes the next steps and anticipated organizational changes. The vision statement should be the consensus product of a task force that includes senior executives, key managers and well respected employees. It needs to be convincing, feasible and easily understood. It’s the foundation for reform.

Human Organizations

Humanacracy’s value is the picture it paints of a “human organization.” Federal agencies have a huge hurdle to overcome as most have operated under rigid regulations for decades. The few success stories are small, often in recently created units, championed by visionary leaders. That was true with the Navy’s China Lake demonstration project on pay for performance. It was true when the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency was created in the 1990s. The Government Accountability Office also realized significant change under David Walker. The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency had a visionary leader when it was formed. There no doubt are others. However, the growing workforce concerns confirm reform is badly needed. 

Humanacracy portrays a vivid picture of what is a more human organization. In the bureaucratic management model, “human beings are instruments, employed by the organization to create products and services. The goal is to maximize organizational efficiency. In the human model, “the organization is the instrument—it’s the vehicle human beings use to better their lives and the lives of those they serve.” Government should have an advantage in attracting talent—agencies serve essential, valued missions—but many employees are not satisfied with their work experience. 

Another group that focuses on talent management, the organization that initiated the Great Places to Work idea, emphasizes the key is creating “an employee experience characterized by trust, pride and camaraderie—in other words, the pillars of a great workplace culture.” 

From the Great Places to Work website, the best employers:

  • Are extraordinarily selective in who they hire.
  • Welcome new hires warmly, integrating them into the culture from the start.
  • Have programs to foster pride and show employees the value of their work.
  • Understand that sharing information plays an important role in maintaining a trust-based relationship with employees.
  • Believe that tapping the insights of employees fosters innovation and motivates employees. 
  • Treat training and development as a top priority.
  • Ensuring that that compensation is seen as fair and inclusive.

That is not the entire list but the point should be obvious. Government’s talent management practices are not competitive. Significantly, nothing on the list is precluded by law or by financial constraints. Actually, the failure to adopt proven practices is penny wise and pound foolish. The cost of investing in proven practices would be offset by the gains documented in those great places to work. Reform would help agencies attract and retain the best talent and perform at higher levels. The workforce problems would fade away. Creating more human government organizations would benefit the country.