Walk Not Into Temptation: Demonizing Government Workers and Unions

The attacks on government workers that (in)famously began with Reagan’s oft-repeated crack that “government IS the problem…” were wrong then, and wrong now.  It is possible that government, with tougher procedures for discipline and dismissal, has a slightly higher percentage of ineffective workers than the private sector.  But not much.  Moreover, government has proven repeatedly that it can be as good as any business in achieving high levels of performance and service excellence.  Ironically, it was the Reagan Executive Order in 1987 that really helped usher in the Federal improvement era.  I worked with a Department of Labor team on those first mandated inquiries about “quality” and “productivity” in the Wage and Hour Division.  That set us up for the quality improvement work that I began for the DOL in 1989.
My experience with the Federal Quality Improvement movement taught me two very important lessons:  1) government can apply the methods of sustained process improvement as well as anyone; and 2)memories are short, once the agenda at the top changes.  The winners of the Federal improvement awards (including Wage and Hour in 1993) achieved remarkable results.  But who today, would think of NASA or the IRS in the same sentence as “operational excellence” or “customer service excellence?”  Yet they were both multiple award winners in the 1990s.
Today’s Federal workplace is amazing.  My recent visit to my former DOL office in New Jersey reflected the massive wave of change that is affecting the agency and the government.  Retirements of our Baby Boomer generation are generating the next great wave of public service hiring.  People with more and better education than ever before.  People with the intelligence to command the mission of our agencies, and the determination to see the results.
In the private sector, firms like Gore and P&G have done remarkable work tapping both their workforce and their customers to drive innovation.  The public sector is no different.  Government 2.0 is leveraging the same crowd-sourcing and social media technologies as the best in the private sector.  Around the world, government employees are achieving sustained improvement.  The methods of Lean Six Sigma, developed in the private sector, are being used at all levels of government to drive progress.  The DoD is engaged in the largest Lean initiative in the world.  Through my work with the Government Division of ASQ, we are collecting a harvest of success stories from government globally- outstanding results in Georgia, Iowa, Connecticut, Washington, Madison, Wisconson, Canada, Wales, and dozens more.
Yesterday’s New York Times had a front-page story about the new administration in New York, and the likely battles they will have with public employee unions.  It is all too easy to demonize  a person or group when we do not understand them, and fear they may have more power than we do in a tough situation.  Needless to say, this isn’t the case with public employee unions.  At the Federal level, unions can not bargain over pay or benefits, and they can not call strikes.  What all unions do, is collectively represent the interests of their constituents.  The terms of performance appraisals and discipline, make up the bulk of Federal union work.  Of course, the public are too quick to falsely believe that government unions somehow unilaterally forced management to sign agreements for big raises and fat pensions.  The public ignores the very obvious fact that all labor-management agreements are signed and agreed to by BOTH sides.  No one makes deals they believe will create fiscal crises in the future.
We are experiencing massive and fundamental change in our economy and society.  The system by which tax revenues were generated and passed down to various jurisdictions to support public programs, is broken.  Cities and States are in fiscal turmoil that may last for years.  There is no question that significant cuts in government programs and employment will occur.  We must vigorously resist the temptation to seek a scapegoat, and assign blame.  There is no large-scale “waste, fraud, and abuse” in government.  There are overwhelmingly people who do their best every day.  Our nation needs an open and honest debate about what government it wants and needs, and how to pay for it.  Instead of criticizing alleged “big government,” seek the leaders who want to pursue “right-sized government.”
The greatest observer and scholar of the workplace that I know of, was W. Edwards Deming.  With regard to unproductive workers, he always asked executives “do you have dead wood?” Then, “did you hire them that way?” Game over.  No one knowingly hires an unproductive worker.  But the many poor systems of work destroy people’s ability to make meaningful contributions.
Our government workers want the same things as anyone else- a sufficient income to have a home, the means to raise a family in a nurturing community, a comfortable retirement, and pride in the achievement of their efforts on the job.

Bruce Waltuck co-created the award-winning Quality and Process Improvement system for the U. S. Department of Labor.  He was a negotiator and signer of the DOL’s labor-management agreement in 1991, the first completely interest-based, consensus agreement in the U.S. Federal sector.  Most recently he served as Senior Advisor for Process Improvement, to the head of an agency in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  He has taught and presented to nearly 20,000 people throughout the U.S., Canada, Brazil, and Southeast Asia, on issues in leadership and organization improvement.

Aside | This entry was posted in Change, Continuous Process Improvement, Dialogue, Government Improvement, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Walk Not Into Temptation: Demonizing Government Workers and Unions

  1. Ted Bibbes says:

    Bruce- great blog today. 2 thoughts come to mind. First- another Deming quote: “change is NOT required. Survival is optional.” and along the line of thought regarding employees- I can not recall an employee- public or private- that I have worked with who woke up in the morning and said themselves- “I can’t wait to work my worse and provide poor customer service.”

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