Weekly Insight What's Working

Unpacking bureaucracy: Training public workers

The public’s relationship with government bureaucracy is complicated. We simultaneously expect everything and nothing.

Government bureaucracy is often a punchline. On good days it is the butt of our jokes. On bad days it is the scapegoat for our frustrations. Yet, like with most punchlines, bureaucracy is the target because it is complicated. And it is complicated because it is built to serve some of our largest collective needs—needs that require coordination of information and people beyond what any individual or small group of individuals can accomplish. 

Surveys suggest low levels of trust in government, yet our collective reliance—on everything from education to infrastructure to social services—is strongly held. 

Earlier this month, Politico reported that being president is harder than President Trump thought and that “he is growing frustrated with the challenges of running the massive federal bureaucracy.”

In North Carolina, the General Assembly took actions that reduced the number of appointed positions available for the Governor. The nuances of this debate have been well laid out elsewhere. However, the dialogue following the legislative action was full of debate about the nature of the State’s “bloated bureaucracy.”    

Over the next several months, the Weekly Insight will explore the state of bureaucracy in North Carolina. We’re going to feature folks who have spent time leading, organizing, and shaping North Carolina’s bureaucratic system. We are going to highlight what’s working and explore what’s not.

Challenges facing public bureaucracies

Several years ago, a legislator told my friend Tony, “we don’t need to worry too much about training for state employees. Most of them are third class workers anyhow.” Tony, who was himself a state employee at the time, valiantly defended the public workforce, but that encounter stuck with me. 

While not always said so bluntly, that perception of public employees is common. When I shifted from working in the university system to working for a state agency, I began with ill-formed, preconceived notions about my future co-workers. 

However, from my very first hour on the job until the time that I left, I was constantly impressed by the quality, dedication, and expertise of the state’s workforce.   

One of my former duties was to provide legal review of responses to public records requests. One morning, I found myself on the phone with a frustrated citizen who wanted to know why I could not quickly send him the information he had requested. Simultaneously, this citizen was frustrated with the bureaucratic process that delayed him and frustrated that a bigger bureaucracy did not exist to serve his needs more quickly. 

In some ways the legislator who spoke to my friend is correct. Many public sector employees are different from private sector employees, specifically around what draws them to public employment and the challenges they face while in their public-focused roles. 

People are drawn to public employment by all sorts of forces. A recent survey by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence suggested that the five leading characteristics drawing public employees to their jobs were (1) health insurance, (2) retirement benefits, (3) job security, (4) salary and (5) personal satisfaction. 

A 2014 Harvard Business Review article summarized seven of the challenges that face public bureaucracies.

  • Prevailing negative attitudes about government and government employees
  • Frequent and abrupt changes in leadership
  • Hard-to-measure achievements
  • An older workforce
  • Strong civil-service rules and employee protections
  • Constraints of the use of financial incentives

As a result of these differences, public workers need to have a different skill set than private sector workers. This is one area where North Carolina is doing pretty well.

A program that’s working

Over the last several decades, the Certified Public Manager® (CPM) Program has been regularly training cohorts of state employees in the art of public management. The Program, run through the N.C. Office of State Human Resources, is open to state employees who have supervisory roles and manage other employees. It lasts 14 months, involves approximately 12 classroom days, and requires more than 120 hours outside the classroom to complete online courses and assignments, including a project intended for implementation in the employees’ agencies.

As Joanne McDaniel, one of the CPM Program instructors described, “This program helps people who have moved up the ladder and shown strong competence to gain skills that they may not have gained in their academic or other previous training.”

“Think about the engineer who is really good at being an engineer, and who gets promoted at DOT (the Department of Transportation) because of her technical skill. She, all of a sudden, has people reporting to her. She may never have been given any guidance or had any classes about managing people. Putting her into this program allows her to work on that in a formal way and not have to do it on the job.”

“Conversely, if you think of someone who may be working at an agency where there is more attention to relationships, like a social service kind of setting, putting those people into this program gives them tools and techniques to allow them to be more structured in what they do.”

The CPM Program’s administrators and instructors have developed a tailored, sophisticated program that focuses on managerial development in seven core competencies: (1) personal and organizational integrity, (2) managing work, (3) leading people, (4) developing self, (5) systematic integration, (6) public service focus, and (7) change leadership. 

“Our goal is give mid-level and upper mid-level managers the competencies to do their jobs well and to help others in their departments and agencies do their jobs well too,” said McDaniel.

“These competencies start with managers thinking about themselves as leaders and going all the way through thinking about how they fit into their bigger agency and the state government. We also spend time talking about what it means to serve the public and how that affects their job and management style.”

McDaniel emphasized the importance weaving the public service element into the curriculum and how much it contributed to the program’s continued success. 

“One of things that I’ve seen consistently in more than 20 years of working with hundreds, maybe thousands of state employees, is a dedication to public service. I see how much the participants care about their work. I’ve seen some really technical and dry stuff, but it’s interesting to see how passionate most participants are about their work. I may not care about asphalt versus concrete, but they do and are passionate about it. It’s not just butts in seats.”

With a state workforce of more than 84,000 employees, not including the 180,000 public school personnel, the CPM Program is addressing a core need and improving the quality of the state workforce. At $1,400 per participant, it is cost effective relative to other management training options and provides a tailored approach to what managers needs in North Carolina. 

The CPM program is an example of something that is strengthening the state’s bureaucracy and working well in government.

AHH headshot-2016

Andrew Holton is a board member and contributor to the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

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