Public Service: The Need for Reform

By: Dr. Wayne Brock

Public administrators are facing the same challenges throughout the United States. Leading public organizations at all levels, lean, even effective and efficient public service and programs, are hearing public outcry to eliminate wasteful spending on programs and services during the current economic crisis. This outcry is making the news headlines on a continuous basis. Instantly, this brings to mind a quote from Albert Einstein, “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  Public service is in need of reform in many areas, yet the need to reform the hiring and promotion processes is most critical.

Hiring and promotion in many public service entities is based on past performance and tenure. The long-standing reward of a promotion for devotion to public service, while traditional in public service, is logically flawed for innovative leadership. Promotion consideration based upon past performance, evaluated at the annual evaluation period, is an evaluation of skills possessed for a previous position.  The additional skills needed for a promotional position are not normally considered in the hiring process. Tenure provides a cursory evaluation of loyalty, yet loyalty cannot lead the organization.

On August 9, 2012, Kellie Lunney reported in Government Executive that one-third of federal HR professionals do not have confidence in agency managers having the skills to succeed. This should not be a surprise since manager positions are not selected based upon needed skill sets. Leadership skill building and practice are typically provided to employees after being selected for a leadership position. Many public organizations at various levels have mentor programs, yet who is providing the mentoring to employees? The current leaders that provide today’s leadership and those same leaders that created today’s problems? It seems public service has a mechanism to protect traditions in the hiring, promotion and tenure processes.  The mechanism leads to an incongruent process in a system needing effective and efficient government agency leaders.

Many in the millennium generation do not consider a career in public service attractive. A need exists in public service to examine staff, determine the right people for the agency and to retain only those that desire a career in public service and have the skills for jobs. This is a perfect time to examine current practices and reform the civil service processes to create and attract future leaders. Archaic and ineffective systems in hiring and compensation need reform including:

a)     Examining pay systems to ensure the ability to attract talent

b)     Investing in employees with skill based training and development for a position two levels higher

c)     Ensuring leadership skill development takes place with opportunities to practice skills prior to a leadership position

d)     Examining hiring and promotion processes, leading to hiring based on the skill set needed for the position being advertised

e)     Adjusting the focus for hiring and promotion to be based upon knowledge, skill, and ability for the position, not based upon specific job related tasks that may fit better with a previous position

f)      Minimally relying upon past performance for hiring or promotion consideration, even though previous performance may predict the desire to succeed in the future

g)     Ensuring the incumbent is right for the position. Continuously evaluate and invest in the people, not the position.

The need to reform public service leadership to increase the internal and external stakeholder confidence is necessary. The driving force can be found in The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge where he wrote, “Today’s problems are yesterday’s solution.” Tomorrow’s solution begins with reforming public service hiring, promotion and compensation to get the right people in the right positions. Investing in our public leaders after establishing a solid foundation will lead reform in public service.

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