Interviews: Frequently Used, Less Frequently Useful

By Robyn – Jay Bage

bage marchOne of the most common methods of deciding the best candidate for the job is interviewing. We give a great deal of weight to this often very brief encounter with our potential candidates. Not that brevity is the issue. By the time a candidate has made it to an interview, you have already determined them to be qualified for the position. That’s why we ask for resumes and completed applications.

Interviews are designed for two purposes: to verify information received on the resume and application and to assess “fit”—the degree to which your candidate is compatible with the organization’s and current employees’ mission, values, work ethic, energy, mood, etc. Sadly, our reliance on interviews to provide useful and accurate information is often misplaced. They are notoriously invalid (not assessing what you intend to assess) and unreliable (yielding inconsistent results).

One problem I see is that we don’t always train managers to conduct interview. In my experience, the best we do is overlay an organizational process and hope folks figure it out and get it done. You remember the drill. You are handed a stack of resumes, a list of questions, and a schedule by which your recommendation is due.

I remember once being sent a packet from human resources that contained three resumes and a list of suggested questions. Fortunately I was fully aware I had no idea what to do and sought help from a more senior colleague. In hindsight that colleague wasn’t much more prepared than I was. Still, her help made the difference between a disaster and a greater disaster. A worse (and in my observation, more common) case is being given nothing except the resumes or applications.

Managers need training in conducting interviews, as much as they need training in other areas of management, to develop the skills required to select the best candidate. Good interview skills include:

  • Solid preparation. The chances that you will select the best candidate are increased when you carefully prepare your questions ahead of time and ask each candidate the same questions. You should also be clear what constitutes a good answer. If you don’t know what you are looking for, and don’t ask each person the same questions, you have no basis on which to compare them.
  • Document the interview. Write down each candidate’s responses. Later, after the interview, you can rate the answers based on how close they came to your desired response.
  • Set aside biases. I’m not talking about discrimination, which has no place in an interview or any other employment action. I’m talking about psychological biases that creep into and distort our better judgement. For example:
    • Like me, not like me. We tend to favor people who we assess to be like us.
    • Halo, horns. This bias happens when something great about a candidate colors our judgment about every other attribute OR when one negative attribute makes every other attribute seem worse than it is.
    • Recency, primacy.When our judgment is colored by what happens (what we see, hear or assume) when we first meet a candidate or what happens last.

When we are aware of potential biases, we can set aside their influences and make higher quality decisions.

  • Avoid “illegal questions.” Actually, the questions themselves are not illegal. But the information you could illicit may give you information you are not entitled to use in making a hiring decisions. For instance, as employer you have no right to know if you candidate has children, what his ethnicity is or her religious affiliation. If a manager isn’t trained, she may not be aware of the types of questions and discussion topics to avoid.
  • Control. Maintaining control of an interview is a skill that can be learned through mentorship, modeling and observing others. As an interviewee, we are told to “take control” of the interview. As an interviewer, this is problematic. If the candidate is in control of the interview, the likelihood that you will inadvertently stumble into information you are not entitled to have is high. The likelihood that you will discover the information you seek is low.

How did you learn how to conduct a good interview? What tips might you have to make them more productive?

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The Giving Tree of Character

By Jason Bowns

Jason 1

Photo Credit: Attorney Oscar Michelin

We live in an age of visibility, where the public stage is bigger than ever before. There’s an upward push for more transparency, justified as an accountability mechanism. Secrets are inherently treated with suspicion and disdain; it suggests that something nefarious may be hidden.

British Lord Acton posited, “Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.” This suggests that to enter the public realm is also to abridge the right to personal privacy.

We expect that our leaders will have cultivated characters before entering public life and won’t make the kinds of mistakes we often see. We crave leaders who exhibit strong character, but exactly what does this mean? How can we measure whether our leaders have character?

Photo Credit: University of California-Irvine

President Lincoln illustrated the distinction between perception and reality when he poetically noted, “Perhaps a man’s character was like a tree and his reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” So how do we see the tree, rather than its shadow?

The answer to that is to find the tree and to know it, to test the strength of its bark, to assess the greenness of its leaves and to see how many birds sing in its branches. A person’s reputation may not reflect the reality. Our eyes may study a shadow down on the ground, when they should look upward, discerning for oneself.

Many persons of sound reputations have become fallen trees. Consider New York Governor Elliot Spitzer, Connecticut Governor John Rowland, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, U.S. Representative Michael Grimm, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Massachusetts State Senator Dianne Wilkerson and even U.S. President Richard Nixon.

These people were known for their integrity. Many held multiple public offices or had been re-elected multiples times. They had solid reputations before they came into their public roles. Do their mistakes mean that they had poor characters all along?

Photo Credit: The Library of Congress

Photo Credit: The Library of Congress

American humanitarian Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”

Many of those former public officials have sought to make amends for their poor choices. Nixon famously said during his interviews with David Frost, “As far as the handling of this matter is concerned, it was so botched up. I made so many bad judgments. The worst ones, mistakes of the heart, rather than the head. But let me say, a man in that top job, he’s got to have heart, but his head must always rule his heart.”

Character forms through failures and mistakes. Often, this vulnerable side of trial and error is hidden from that public reputation. While running for mayor of New York City, former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn chose to disclose her own prior struggles to overcome bulimia and alcoholism. U.S. President George W. Bush famously combated alcoholism himself before becoming a teetotaler. .

Former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson was arrested in his youth in incidents he later succinctly described as “I was just dumb and rebellious and stupid. And a different person.” He also noted, “The older your get, the more you realize…your own attitude is stupefying, and arrogant, and cocky, and a miserable way to live.”

Character manifests in what we do more than what we may say. As President Woodrow Wilson said, “If you will think about what you ought to do for other people, your character will take care of itself. Character is a by-product, and any man who devotes himself to its cultivation in his own case will become a selfish prig.”

In other words, focus on being the tree, rather than a shadow.

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Are U.S. Political and Economic Systems Ethically Challenged?

By Winnie Eke

We often hear of jokes about Nigerian tricks to riches. With the recent indictments of former Governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, New York Assemblyman Sheldon Silver and Congressman Grimes, it is sad that people in the United States still think there is no corruption here.

Eke march blogAs Juan Cole indicated in his publication, the U.S. has a serious problem with both legal and illegal corruption. Most of the corruption centers on those with wealth and political power. Elections in the United States are questionable. People wonder if those elected are there to represent them. No wonder voter turn-out is bad, especially in the non-presidential cycle. The army of lobbyist from the corporate world and interest groups flood politicians with money and speak to who the “elected’ politicians are working for.

We see the names and faces of those who defrauded the SNAP or food stamp program, yet not one CEO has been charged or indicted for crashing the economy in 2008. With all the ethical challenges in the U.S., why is America quick to list the most corrupt nations while excluding itself?

As a noted Nigerian author wrote, “Things have fallen apart and the center cannot hold.” Perhaps the U.S. should not throw stones while living in a glass house.

Your thought?

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Moving ASPA Forward

By Craig Donovan

I previously wrote about the Law of Inertia — An object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force – otherwise known as the ASPA motto. While consistency, steadfastness if you prefer, is a good thing, experimentation, innovation and improvement are even better. The question is how can ASPA innovate in ways that would improve both the organization and public administration in general? After three decades of experience with ASPA (self-disclosure, I am a Lifetime Member and former presidential candidate), I have a couple of suggestions.

The first suggestion for change is a structural one. The most powerful entity within ASPA is not the president per se, it is the Nominating Committee. These are the people who select those who will (and ipso facto those who will not) eventually lead the organization. The people promoted to run, as well as their number, drive the possible results.

The people who work on the selection of leadership candidates should be independent of and at arm’s length from the current and past leadership. We need the widest range of candidates from across the membership. We should also structurally ensure that our presidential candidates and officers alternate terms between academics and practitioners as neither group should be allowed to dominate.

The presidential term of office is for one year. However, the overall term of service is three plus years: first as vice president, then as president-elect, then president, then past-president. This is a substantial commitment, one that is hard to make for our practitioner members. This is just one reason so many of ASPA’s presidents are academics.

Changing the presidential term from a multi-step, multi-year process to a single, two year term would reduce the burden upon those who run and serve. At the same time, it would extend the effectiveness of the office, providing those who serve with a long enough time in office to more fully introduce and manage their own initiatives above and beyond the annual conference.

While the above changes are structural, I offer one other recommendation that is functional. The American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) advances the science, art and practice of public administration.  But, just how do we do this? We hold our annual conference. We support our various chapters and sections and their activities. We produce a range of publications. But I believe we can do more.

Each year, or each two-year presidential term, ASPA could select a public administration topic, issue or problem which it would then review, study, write about and make recommendations on. This would have several advantages. Internally, by having a common front, we would bring together all the disparate parts of ASPA and its membership in a united focus. Further, this approach would allow ASPA to become a more vital force in public administration, visibly performing substantive work to improve the state of the public service.

Last year, ASPA celebrated its 75th anniversary with a once in a lifetime gala. As we continue into the 21st century and toward our 100th year, it is past time for us to go beyond just keeping calm and carrying on. Now more than ever, it is time for ASPA to reshape its operations and redefine its mission to reinvigorate our current membership, expand its desirability to potential and former members and expand its relevance to the field.

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Why We Do It

By Jason Bowns

Public service not only requires skills; it also demands a particular state of mind.

In the business world, operations are driven by the bottom line and profit margins. As one publication succinctly states, “The main goal for most businesses is to earn a profit.”

Edwards Deming gave an illuminating speech July 11, 1990, entitled, “Does anybody give a hoot about profit?” He depicted business organizations as interdependent systems where profits are the natural byproduct. He said, “The aim that I’d propose for a system is gain for everybody – stockholders, employees, suppliers, customers, the community, the environment. Everybody should fare better, everybody in the system should be ahead, his quality of life should improve: that’s what I mean by the aim of a system.”

While businesses depend upon monetary profits, this approach suggests that private businesses are not so different from public entities after all. They are both systems.

The founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell, famously wrote, “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it.” The overarching aim of public service can propel us to work hard in spite of the critics, the shutdowns and the showdowns.

There’s an enduring belief in something higher and greater which rises above moments of anguish and frustrated debate. This belief gets public servants through darker days. Such hope is the light shining through.

Massachusetts legislator and educator Horace Mann said, “Doing nothing for others is the undoing of one’s self.” Similarly, Booker T. Washington wrote in his autobiography that, “Those who are happiest are those who do the most for others.”

In his inaugural address, President Kennedy urged, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Public service springs from our roots and Kennedy’s words were a mere reminder.

Let us invoke our American ideals as set forth in the Preamble of the Constitution. That document notes the chief reasons for its existence:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Deming reminds us, “Remember that without an aim there is no system. And the aim of the system must be clear to everyone in it. If we understand a system, and work on it, then everybody will gain. Everybody will take part in the aim and will be a beneficiary of the aim.”

Sometimes, public servants may forget this big picture. Abigail Adams asked the question in 1778, “If we do not lay out ourselves in the service of mankind whom should we serve?”

This public service spirit cannot be contracted out or contracted in. It’s a different paradigm altogether. How to cultivate that spirit, however, remains an essential question.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I have the consolation too of having added nothing to my private fortune, during my public service, and of retiring with hands as clean as they are empty.”

We all could use some extra carrots to work harder. This doesn’t mean that money is a dirty word, but government did exist before performance bonuses. Maybe we should ask if anyone gives a hoot about profit in the public sector, too?

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm noted, “Service is the rent that you pay for room on this earth.” People may say the same, but some forget and fail to see it in practice or even to put it into practice. For them, it’s more of a paycheck just to make a living.

We may still believe in a higher and nobler call. We may see a way to leave something better than how we found it. Some may dismiss this as an idealistic pipe dream, but so many already chose that path willfully and without regret. They all deemed it to be worthy.

That’s why we do it.

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Data Envy? Don’t Worry; Your Data ARE Big Enough!

By Thomas I Miller

Have you begun to feel the pressure to start collecting, storing and analyzing data about your residents’ consumer behavior, television viewing habits, doctor visits, left turns? Has the talk about linking resident movements with the tides and sun spots gotten a bit outré? These pressures come from the push for big data where getting lots of bytes and seeing ‘what’ correlates with ‘what’ can help you discover unexpected, interesting and, better-yet, useful information. As the CEO of a San Francisco-based predictive-analytics company put it, “The more hypotheses you can come up with—hypothesis after hypothesis after hypothesis—the more ways you have of finding things that other people don’t find.”

The media examples of private sector data mash-ups with market potential have begun to play loud and obvious like an alarm intended to awaken unimaginative public servants to realize that they are becoming the buggy whip producers of the Model-T age. Maybe you’ve heard that by linking after-purchase car problems with car color, it was found that owners of orange cars treat their vehicles better than do other owners or that by correlating phases of the moon with sales data, one company discovered that deals made on a full moon were 43 percent bigger than deals made when the moon was not full. These real correlations were uncovered by tinkering with large data sets.

Data mashups aren’t just for the private sector. With clever smartphone apps, some cities now harness resident photos of pot holes to target needed street repairs and improve transit service by tracking commuter behavior.

Miller marchThe good news for local government administrators is that data are big, not just because of their volume and the potential for unexpected relationships lurking in the numbers. Data are big because they can answer important questions. Furthermore, local government does not want for large volumes of useful data even in the absence of any smartphone apps. Local government does not need movement sensors or satellite downloads to become a big player in big data. Government needs thoughtful leaders and skilled researchers to determine what to do with the data it already has.

In a workshop my colleague recently gave to city managers in Nebraska, she identified scores of medium to large datasets that most local governments already store. For example, police already have decades of crime data. Code enforcement and fire services already have years of violations data. The utilities department has water usage and video monitoring of sewer lines. There exists gigabytes of records about historical media circulation from the library, recreation facility use from the parks department and more.

So forget worrying about finding the next set of large data. Data are like grains of sand: in large quantities they just pile up. You wouldn’t order tons of sand unless you knew if it was for a beach, roadway, construction, artwork, glass-making, ballast or an hourglass. Similarly with data applications, someone must identify a use, ask what else is going to go with the sand and then the mashup can create the cement.

In part because of “silo-based’ systems storage, failure to designate anyone to generate questions and no assignment of anyone to crunch the numbers, many important questions that can be answered with local governments’ big data are never even asked. Data that reside in local government repositories are just mounds of sand waiting to be sculpted into castles. Local government leaders don’t need more data. They need to assume the responsibility of asking the right questions so that the data they have can be connected to give answers the community needs.

To help them, local government chief administrators should empower department managers to work together to ask the penetrating questions. Managers should hire savvy researchers or evaluators (who are different from information technology engineers), those skilled in helping to hone the right questions and with the computer skills to get the answers.

Check out this document if you want some help picturing the data you already have and the questions about those data that may turn up unexpected and useful answers.

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Is There Free Speech?

By Wiha Powell

Freedom of Speech or Free Speech: (noun) the right to express any opinions without censorship or restraint.

In the United States, people have the right to exercise freedom of speech. Sometimes this freedom is exercised in the form of press. In light of recent worldwide events, it seems that the right to exercise this freedom has become deadly as some view such speech as offensive (i.e., the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper headquarters).

So the question remains, as it has been for many decades, “is there such a thing as free speech?”

Personally, I believe there is no such thing as free speech. Many would disagree and even call me an enemy of free speech. According to the First Amendment, everyone has the right to free speech. However, not to be a Debbie Downer, not even in the United States is free speech ‘unlimited.’ Under the First Amendment, there are categories such as libel, slander and defamation, hate words and obscenity that are prohibited for reasons of welfare and public safety.

In 2003, the Supreme Court held that speech intended to intimidate, such as cross burning, might not receive First Amendment protection. One does not have the right to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater because of the potential danger to innocent people. However, as the American Civil Liberties Union legal counsel, Gabe Rothman, wrote in 2012, “The ‘crowded theater’ example is worse than useless in defining the boundaries of constitutional speech. When used metaphorically, it can be deployed against any unpopular speech.” In other words, if speech is completely free, one can shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater or an empty theater if one perceived that there is a real fire, without worrying about trampling on anyone’s right.

The right to say whatever you feel is a broad right that is ‘theoretically’ covered by the First Amendment. In reality, there are limitations. These limitations are put in place to prevent individuals from feeling less free and to also prevent their private space and peace from being invaded. In hindsight, the freedom to say whatever one pleases, no matter your political affiliation, religion, race and sex, is curtailed based on someone feeling that their “private space and peace is being invaded.” Apparently, the First Amendment took its cue from the nursery rhythm “stick and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me.” But in actuality, names do hurt.

I’m a firm believer of free speech. But in order to express any opinions without censorship or restraint, there will be an invasion of an individual’s private space and sense of peace. Even though the First Amendment guarantees free speech, there are limitations. Therefore, it cannot be free speech.

For those who say the First Amendment guarantees free speech, keep the following proverb in mind: “Not everything that shines is gold.”

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