Can Public Administrators Dispel American Fear of Government?

Photo credit: Chapman University
Photo credit: Chapman University

Professional public servants should be disheartened by the above survey results. Conducted in October 2015 and reported nationally by Time, the people we serve … fear us?

In November 2015, Pew Research Center released Samantha Smith’s “6 key takeaways about how Americans view their government.” While public trust is at a historic low, Americans believe elected officials, though intelligent, are more selfish and dishonest than those they represent. Congress, the news media, and the entertainment industry are considered institutions of negative influence. However, the report provides hope.

Who’s better to solve the nation’s problems? Fifty-five percent of Americans felt ordinary citizens would do better than elected officials. (Hardly ordinary, presidential candidate Donald Trump’s “popularity” reflects this view.)

Despite campaign rhetoric, and party affiliations aside, most citizens are frustrated (57 percent), not angry (22 percent) with the federal government. (State and local government officials are not immune to this frustration.) Though frustrated, most citizens gave the feds a “passing grade” of 51 percent or higher in 10 of 13 governmental functions ranging from responding to natural disasters to managing U.S. immigration system.

Can American frustration and fear of Government be dispelled? Yes.

How? Change our governmental culture.

In the private sector, Toyota, Nordstrom, General Electric, Starbucks, and Southwest Airlines are often cited as organizational models to emulate. What makes them unique from their competition? Herb Kelleher, chairman of Southwest Airlines, said it best in the 2006 book, Results Rule: Build a Culture That Blows the Competition Away:

“So my biggest concern is that somehow we lose the espirit de corps, the culture, the spirit. If we ever do lose that, we will have lost our most valuable competitive asset.”

To be an effective and efficient 21st century organization, Harvard Business School Professor John P. Kotter (author of Leading Change) states the new culture must:

  • Be externally oriented
  • Be empowering
  • Quick to make decisions
  • Open and candid
  • More risk tolerant

Does your organization or team meet this criteria? From personal experience, few in government, regardless of level, and the private sector pass the test.

Can this culture be achieved in government? Definitely.

Former General Services Agency (GSA) Administrator Dan Tangherlini did it. The FCW 2014 Government Eagle Award Winner led the GSA’s cultural transformation after a series of scandals in 2012. The implementation of shared facilities saved the taxpayers over $70 million. More importantly, he implemented results oriented information technology systems that is being adopted across the federal government. In short, he broke down silos and took a systems approach to government services and service delivery – definitely a cultural change.

He did not achieve this alone. This is a key point leaders, managers, project managers and others need to understand. He said it best: “… what I found was smart, committed, dedicated public servants who were dying to work on something big and important and meaningful.”

Culture change starts with leaders and managers committed to adopting, supporting and promoting transformation. Leaders and managers must be the drivers of this change, must hold their organization and teams accountable, and must resource it. Leaders and manages must recognize their role will also change and be prepared to accept it.

Harkening back to the progressive movement, it is time for professional public servants to transform government. Given citizens believe that ordinary people are better equipped to solve the nation’s problems, it is an important and significant mission we must undertake to dispel fears of government. What better way to do this than by transforming its culture. In future blogs, I will address some techniques that leaders at all levels can use to transform governmental culture, one effort at a time.


Submitted by Larry Keeton

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