The big secret of high-performing agencies

Finding people imbued with the idea of public service is only part of the federal manager's job. You've also got to create conditions that sustain their passion...

Arriving for a routine checkup the other morning, I encountered on the glass door a big hand-lettered sign telling patients to phone the practice and let them know you’re here. “I’m standing outside in your hall,” I growled when someone answered. Already cranky, I was in no mood for medical bureaucracy compounded by staling pandemic protocols.

But the nurse who ushered me in and did the preliminaries has a passion for her work. It showed in her enthusiasm, her solicitousness, her energy, and her ability to click with people. At least me. She made me happy to be here. As it turned out, the whole organization seems to have that attitude. No one would trade a week at the beach for seven days of doctors appointments. But having people who really want to do what they’re doing can make even an invasive examination a reasonable experience.

Passion, like “leadership,” has certainly become an overworked term. Probably a thousand books on leadership make it into print each year, and 99.9% of them are not worth the RAM transistors they occupy on your Kindle. Passion, though usually trivialized, is the crucial workforce ingredient needed by any organization seeking high performance. Ultimately people create their own enthusiasm for what they do, but organizations can foster it.

That’s the idea behind a book that arrived at my desk a couple of weeks ago. Indiana University professor emeritus Jim Perry has been studying this challenge for a long time. His new tome, Managing Organizations To Sustain Passion For Public Service (Cambridge University Press) is no pie-eyed fantasy. Instead, it is a practical guide girded with citations of decades of research into government agency management.

It postulates that people who join government are motivated by public service in the first place. So if anything, managers — and leaders — must make sure they “sustain” that motivation. Otherwise, the bigness, legal structures and bureaucratic processes conspire to wringer out people’s passion as if they’re wet towels.

“People come to government for lots of reasons,” Perry told me. “Sometimes they come for extrinsic rewards; money, pensions and other things. But by and large, many of them come because they want to make a difference. And we need to capture that. We need to put that front and center … to the way we think about how we manage our government organizations.”

Perry prescribes a lifecycle approach to doing this. It starts with selecting people with public service motivation in the first place. Just plain skills alone don’t promise success. A skilled and service motivated person is more likely to fit in, work in alignment with the agency’s values, and greater commitment to goals, Perry argues.

None of this absolves the organization from maintaining a workplace that builds on people’s motivation. In my interview, Perry cited David Grant, now a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. Grant had a long career, half as a senior executive, in several agencies, doing or overseeing many of the seemingly arcane functions that make agencies go. He started as an intern, a clerk-typist with no intention of sticking around. But, Perry said, “David provides a marvelous story about his work as an intern 35 years ago. He had so much freedom and so much autonomy, that led him to pursue a federal career for 35 years.”

The idea goes a shade deeper. If people have a public service motivation, Perry argues, then compensation and other rewards and incentive systems should be geared to cater to employees’ psychology. In his forward to the book, Volker Alliance Tom Ross underscores this, noting that the “design of merit systems, which are often criticized as unresponsive and unaccountable, creates an environment for members to fulfill their basic psychological needs.” He adds that “well-designed civil service systems have endured and delivered effective results despite the often-heard criticisms.”

Perry devotes several chapters for proven management techniques to sustain that passion.

Yes, there are duds, burnouts, retirement countdown watchers. But enthusiasm for public service so far remains a staple of the federal workforce.

I hear this over and over in Federal Drive interviews. Just this morning I spoke to two people at a law enforcement agency: CBP’s acting chief technology officer Sunil Madhugiri and Officer Tricia Kennedy. They collaborated on an app for foreign travelers to the U.S. They were pumped, thrilled to tell the story, and expressed mutual admiration for their respective efforts in developing this crucial app. I can tell this wasn’t forced or done for my benefit. The other day I had to end an interview with a federal scientist, Dr. Rao Kotamarthi of the Argonne National Lab. One of his projects is helping Pacific Gas & Electric deal with climate models and fire mitigation. I was out of time. Kotamarthi said that he just loves to talk about modeling the climate and supercomputing. That’s not love of talk. It’s passion for important work. You want to hear passion for the diversity and inclusion goal? Listen to FDIC’s Nikita Pearson.

Pay for performance? Not a good idea, IU’s Perry told me: “The reality is that paying for performance often deflects people from that passion, from the sort of the intrinsic rewards they get from their work.” He said people should be well and fairly compensated, but government employees should be rewarded in a way that emphasizes the intrinsic desire for public service.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Alazar Moges

The $500 bank note depicted President William McKinley, while the $1,000 denomination featured a portrait of President Grover Cleveland. To put the scarcity of these notes into perspective, the total number of $500 & $1,000 bills printed in all three series (1928, 1934, 1934-A) was just over 6.5 million.

Source: APMEX

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