Making Government Efficient
Business Journal

Making Government Efficient

The U.S. government has problems that many private companies don't. But they're solvable.

To many, this is a truism: Government is inefficient, and its workers are disengaged. But Lawrence Mallory, a Gallup senior practice consultant who specializes in workplace engagement in government, says there's actually a bigger truism at work. "A large bureaucratic organization is a large bureaucratic organization," he says. "And that's true whether the institution is government or not."

At best, inept managers slow teams down; at worst, they destroy them.

Still, government faces self-imposed constraints that harm efficiency in ways that many less bureaucratic organizations would never tolerate. Mallory says the following four are the worst.

  • Government culture tries to avoid failure rather than striving to succeed. "New workers are basically told 'Just don't make a mistake,'" Mallory says. "That's different than succeeding." That attitude, though it might keep government agencies out of the news, hampers innovation, progress, and genuine customer service.
  • Managers aren't recruited for talent. Government promotions often reward seniority. That makes a manager role a reward for loyalty, not a career track for those with management talent. At best, inept managers slow teams down; at worst, they destroy them.
  • Procedures are written in stone. Private enterprises should be nimble to meet market demands, but that pressure is absent in government, Mallory says. "Agencies develop rules and policies -- to avoid mistakes, of course -- that they're then forced to follow. Sometimes, they do this to the point of absurdity." In one agency Mallory studied, leadership was worried that workers were unsatisfied about their ability to meet management's expectations -- so management lowered its expectations.
  • Lack of succession planning. A careful assessment of an organization's current talent pool and imminent needs is the foundation of any succession plan. But when the leadership team is comprised of managers who were promoted based on seniority and a history of avoiding mistakes, succession planning becomes "incredibly risk-averse and top-heavy," as Mallory says. And it is quite likely lacking in several necessary demands of leadership.

Mallory strongly believes that not every government office has all these problems. Yet the problems are common enough -- and problematic enough -- that government has a greater responsibility to solve them than a private company would. After all, whose actions affect you more, those of the IRS or those of PepsiCo?

Contrary to popular perception, government workers' engagement levels are similar to the engagement levels of corporate workers. And Mallory believes the key to overcoming the constraints listed above is engagement. Government workers want to be engaged in their work, just like everybody else. Make genuine engagement a guiding principle, and the problems solve themselves.

"Government leaders have to say, 'We want to get the best effort out of our people. When we treat our people well, we get their best work,'" Mallory says. "This is really important for people doing the people's business -- and most government workers are really proud to be doing it."

Jennifer Robison is a Senior Editor of the Gallup Business Journal.
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