“Bureaucrat” Need Not Be a Dirty Word

“Bureaucrat” Need Not Be a Dirty Word

          
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“Bureaucrat” Need Not Be a Dirty Word

1983
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    • ClaytonChristensen
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    Should we call employees associates or subordinates? Are production workers the company's front line, or are they the boys out back? These questions are not mere issues of semantics; they are at the core of a revolution in the way managers motivate their people. Star corporate performers like IBM and Delta have long known that challenging, training and trusting employees was their key to success, but for years they were loners. Now, throughout the private sector, a growing number of managers are redefining their relationships with employees. They see their role as motivating employees, rather than controlling them.

    Unfortunately, while the revolution in managers' attitudes toward their people is picking up steam in the private sector, it is losing ground in government. The term “bureaucrat”, never a word connoting great respect, has become a term of derision. The past two presidents were elected on campaigns against Washington's bumbling bureaucracy, and their rhetoric has been internalized by many of the political appointees who occupy the top line-management positions in government.

    Instead of treating employees with respect, many of Washington's managers distrust their bureaucrats' motives. Instead of challenging bureaucrats with responsibility, politician-managers reserve all decisions with political or policy implications to themselves. Instead of investing in employee development, most politician-managers simply do not care. After all, the average tenure of political appointees is 18 months – too short to see much benefit from training their workers with further skills. And there is little to train the bureaucrats for. The top four layers of management typically are reserved for members of the political team; bureaucrats cannot penetrate general management.

    Washington's politician-managers have embraced these attitudes about their employees without question, even when the best private-sector companies have shown them to be destructive. America pays a high price for this failure of government's top management: because of their attitudes, Washington's managers – and the bureaucrats they manage – are much less productive than they could be.

    Washington's political appointees distrust their workers because they believe bureaucrats' political views and survival instincts might cause them to resist new policy initiatives.

    There is widespread belief, therefore, that unless agency heads surround themselves with a large cadre of ideologically homogenous political appointeees to control the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy will control the government. In most agencies this management team assumes an us-vs.-them stance toward the career civil servants, and defines its mission as fighting the bureaucracy instead of managing it.

    The idea that government employees will not respond to changes in management's policy, while private-sector employees will, is simply not true. Rather, workers in both sectors behave the way management expects them to behave. Not surprisingly, two of Washington's most successful managers, former Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis and General Services Administrator Jerry Carmen, have demonstrated philosophies of managing people that come as close to the IBM-Delta model as can be found in government. Both have gotten exactly what they expected from their bureaucrats: loyalty and results.

    Mr. Lewis had to make large, budget-driven cutbacks in programs for urban mass transit and hazardous-materials-transportation safety. Instead of prejudging an entrenched bureaucracy's intentions and picking a fight with them, he relied on career civil servants, who had strong emotional commitments to their programs, to implement the reductions. They were loyal and highly effective in executing their new boss's policies.

    Mr. Carmen is known for having shaken up the General Services Administration. But he has been effective, according to key associates, because of the tough-minded respect he has accorded his bureaucrats. He has filled some slots formerly reserved for political appointees with career civil servants. When one high-ranking career employee complained about a GSA program, Mr. Carmen let him hold a news conference to vent his views, and then put him in charge of a program to fix it.

    On the other hand, Anne Gorsuch Burford, who brought an us-vs.-them attitude to her Environmental Protection Agency post and set about quickly to control her bureaucracy, also got what she expected: a bureaucracy that undermined her and her program. The reason for Messrs. Lewis's and Carmen's successes and Mrs. Burford's failure was not a matter of ideological harmony on the one hand and discord on the other; it was the way they managed their people. Unfortunately, the Burford model of management seems to dominate in Washington.

    Mr. Carmen agreed in a recent interview. “I have come to the conclusion, and this is coming from a political person now, that we have substituted blaming the work force for blaming leadership. What this country has had over the last number of years is pretty poor government leadership.”

    Politician-managers' distrust of bureaucrats not only limits their own effectiveness, but restrains the bureaucracy's productivity. Managers who believe that bureaucrats are lethargic and unresponsive have established rules for nearly everything bureaucrats do. These procedures, based on the same view of the worker as Frederick Taylor's industrial-engineering systems, are designed to control bureaucrats; to prevent them from doing it wrong. Unfortunately, they also prevent bureaucrats from doing it better.

    To improve productivity in government, the Reagan administration has proposed expanding the merit-pay system to reward civil servants for good performances. It is hoped that this new system will have an impact on productivity and innovation in government.

    Money, however, is not the primary motivator of employees. A recent Public Agenda Foundation study of U.S. workers (which, interestingly, was distributed by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management) found that opportunity for advancement affects employee productivity much more than incentive pay does. The survey also identified two other factors that are just as important as performance-linked pay in their impact on productivity: nonmonetary recognition for good work, and the chance to develop new skills.

    Unfortunately, opportunities for advancement, nonmonetary recognition of achievement, and career development for civil servants simply are not on the agendas of most of the political appointees who occupy Washington's top line-management positions. Attempting to buy bureaucratic productivity by changing the compensation system is a start, but unless the Administration attacks these more important, management-based sources of low productivity, it will accomplish little. The Administration sees itself as trying to pass a bill to permit merit pay extension. In reality it is passing the buck to the bureaucrats. Civil Service productivity is a management problem.

    The best private-sector companies discovered their people long ago. They learned that if management develops employees, trusts them with responsibility and gives them the autonomy to do their jobs efficiently, productivity, innovation and profits are the result. Many have found, in fact, that their people, not capital investment, have been their greatest source of productivity improvement.

    It is time that public-sector managers discovered their people, too. If the experience of the best private-sector companies is any guide, perhaps the greatest cost savings of all can be found in spreading the revolution in managerial attitudes about workers to the top managers of government.

    This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal November 7, 1983.
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