Robert Davis authored a thought-provoking piece recently in Washington Technology: "Is it time to say good-bye to the chain of command?" My response to the question is an enthusiastic "YES!"
Davis argues that today’s businesses are knowledge-based, and therefore the traditional hierarchy structure limits the potential of workers and a company’s competitiveness. He notes, "Work is no longer about specific work roles, an employee’s goals or what is best for a department...Work is about team-based roles, enterprise-wide functions, cross-functional goals, knowledge sharing, and the company’s objectives."
The federal government should take note – this shift also applies to the agency workforce and the work it does to address the objectives of its missions. Yet the government is notoriously slow to embrace change – and a chain of command structure continues to be an integral part of federal agency culture that is desperate for change.
Agencies Lagging in Addressing Workplace Change
Employees are demanding new ways of working and collaborating, yet agencies continue to struggle to address new generations of workers, new technologies and new demands for collaboration. It’s easy to see how far agencies have to go when the recent OPM survey revealed only 35 percent of federal agency workers feel that creativity and innovation are rewarded. Clearly, federal workers remain trapped in their limited roles and in an outdated management structure that, if anything, limits and discourages innovation and creativity.
Evolving a "Chain of Command" Culture
In order for federal agencies to attract and retain the best and the brightest employees, the "chain of command" culture must evolve into one that is more collaborative and matrixed, without the confines of the traditional management structure. The closed-door, hierarchical thinking of the past must now give way to openness, transparency and focus on employee engagement.
It’s time for federal agencies to view their workforce as people who possess skills, knowledge and abilities – not just a person in a single role to complete the task of the day. The change needs to start from above – as Davis states, "Management should be an enabler that allows employees to contribute more, remove internal obstacles to growth and maximize knowledge sharing across the organization."
Call for a New Focus on Skills (Not Position in the Chain)
It’s encouraging to think about how significant the change could be if agencies began to recognize employees for the skills and experiences they bring to the mission – not the number of years they have been at the agency, or their location in the agency leadership hierarchy. This subtle culture shift could go a long way in helping the government quickly and easily bring together the right people with the right abilities to address a new challenge, take on a new project or otherwise tackle a specific agency demand.
The benefits of this kind of change would also extend to the workforce. It would be significantly more rewarding and motivating for employees, who would be able to contribute to multiple projects that fully utilize their skill sets and training. For an employee, it would be much easier to understand their roles and see their contributions in helping the agency achieve mission success.
The dated chain-of-command structure keeps employees tethered to specific roles and responsibilities, regardless of their skills and abilities to perform as a new project or task comes along. It’s time to think outside the "domain of one supervisor’s charge," as Mr. Davis states, and realize that "Every employee is a company-wide asset that can be leveraged well beyond their immediate task. It is management’s responsibility to identify and tap into this unrealized value."
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4 Government Agencies Taking a Page from Startups
Startups are known for giving the power to the people by encouraging their employees to think big and act on their ideas. The government? Not so much. In fact, employee engagement in government is at a four-year low of 56.9 percent, according to Best Places to Work data. In order to compete for the best talent against startups and tech companies, some city and federal governments are taking a page straight from Silicon Valley on ways to engage employees and provide meaningful work. Here, four city and federal groups that are looking to trade bureaucracy for innovation — all in the name of employee engagement. Obama's Digital Startup If the Peace Corps was John F. Kennedy's legacy for public service, perhaps President Obama will be remembered for the US Digital Service. Late last year, Obama's administration launched the USDS after stealthily recruiting some of Silicon Valley's top tech talent (and convincing them to take a pay cut). Their mission? Transform public service delivery in the federal government. The USDS already has over 100 of the top tech minds and is hiring more over the next year and a half to eventually grow to 500. The team acts like a consulting group within the government to help 25 different agencies not only improve, but entirely rethink their IT strategies to ultimately better serve the public through digital services—for instance, upgrading the Veterans Administration's website, so users can access crucial services faster to save time, money and even lives. Minneapolis Turns to Big Data The city of Minneapolis took a deep dive into the world of data with the launch of its Intelligent Operations Platform (IOP), an integrated data analysis platform developed in partnership with IBM. The IOP, which allows employees to share data across departments and perform sophisticated analysis, may not be completely groundbreaking on a purely technical level. But it is treading fresh ground in the world of municipal management. IBM helped Minneapolis develop the platform as part of the company's First-of-a-Kind (FOAK) program, which is also being rolled out in Chicago and Montpellier, France. IBM says the cities should expect to see efficiency gains across various areas, including water and traffic management, but some Minneapolis city employees have already started finding innovative ways to better serve the public, such as tracking bad landlords and modeling the impacts of downtown development. Boston's IT Refresh Despite hosting some of the world's most advanced scientific organizations — not to mention a thriving startup scene — the government of Boston's tech capabilities have been less than cutting-edge. Mayor Martin Walsh is seeking to change that. As part of a wider initiative to upgrade city processes, Walsh created a "Citywide Analytics Team" to act as a central gathering point for information, work across traditional silos and engage city workers around the new tech mantle. One of the team's first tasks was to create a customized dashboard for each city department that deliver real-time data on key departmental functions. City employees say the more efficient, data-driven protocols allow them to better serve citizens and save precious tax dollars. Denver's Peak Academy When Denver's Mayor Michael Hancock took office in 2012, he had a daunting $94 million budget shortfall to deal with, but he also had a morale problem after years of city employee cuts. With the Peak Academy, a city-led training program for employee innovation, Hancock helped tackle both issues. Peak Academy draws its inspiration from Toyota's "Lean Management" theory. The program centers on a voluntary course that teaches city employees how to identify problems in their everyday work and propose effective solutions. The results have been impressive: at least 2,300 employees have taken the course and their ideas, such as speeding up the adoption process for shelter animals and changing postage on city notices, have saved the city $3 million so far. Besides generating practical solutions, which could have otherwise come from consultants or auditors, Peak Academy helps create a valuable boost in employee morale. Even if employees come up with the same ideas as a consultant, one city manager and program graduate told Governing magazine, "You wouldn't have the same buy-in." All photos: Shutterstock
A Wake-Up Call for Federal Government Agencies
In a recent Army Times article, the U.S. Army’s top cyber commander, Lt. Gen. Edward Cardon, made a telling observation about the shocking lack of talent management practices across the Army. He warns that the Army will squander the highly sought cyberwarfare skills within its ranks unless the personnel are better managed, reflecting that there is no way to track personnel after expensive and critical skills training is delivered. In other words, the Army does not know the skills its workforce possesses, or where the highly skilled and trained personnel reside within its organization. People with critical skills may be walking out the door (or already gone), and there is no way for the Army to know – or to do anything about it. While Lt. Gen. Cardon was simply acknowledging challenges he is facing within his own organization, he articulated a harsh reality across the government: federal agencies do not know or understand their workforces. Struggling With Talent Management Questions In my work with federal government agencies looking to implement talent management solutions, I frequently see them struggle to answer the following questions: What skills, knowledge and abilities do your existing employees possess? Where are there gaps that should be the focus of training or recruitment efforts? What skills are needed for today’s missions – and where do you need to build for missions of tomorrow? A Checkbox Approach? Beyond the fact that there is no technological framework in place to keep this kind of information organized and centralized, a key reason as to why it’s so difficult for federal agencies to answer these kinds of questions is because they have long taken a "checkbox" approach to managing their workforces. They know the number of open roles that need to be filled, and the number of positions that need to be eliminated – and meeting those numbers is how they measure success. Agencies therefore focus solely on hitting those numbers, with little consideration for the individual worker and the skills, knowledge and abilities they bring (or should bring) to the role. This is inefficient, a huge waste money, and jeopardizes the agency’s ability to accomplish its mission. Linking Talent Initiatives with Mission Requirements As federal agency HR organizations strategize to set personnel management goals and priorities for 2014 and beyond, talent management must be at the top of the list. Government agencies need to implement solutions that allow them to focus on the work that needs to be done to meet mission requirements, not a job opening that needs to be filled, or a number of positions that need to be eliminated. As Lt. Gen. Condon observes, "I’m more interested in what’s your skill set, and are you able to do the job. How are we managing your skill set, and do we have a growth path for you to continue?" Lt. Gen. Cardon’s message is a wake-up call for government agencies – the time to implement talent management solutions is now. Programs and solutions must be put into place to help agencies understand the skills, knowledge and abilities that each employee possesses so they may easily and effectively align organizational talent to mission requirements; execute training and learning initiatives to address any skills gaps; and measure and manage performance against mission requirements. "Checking the box" is no longer a sufficient measurement of success.
How to Make Your Government Organization a Better Place to Work
There are numerous reasons to work for the federal government. A career in the public sector offers employees an opportunity to make a difference while providing competitive benefits like vacation time, retirement and pension plans. But for every advantage, there are a number of challenges. For instance, the public sector is notorious for what’s known as "red tape"—layers of rules and formalities that prevent things from getting done efficiently. As a result, many employees won’t see their impact right away. While it’s possible to build a successful career working in government, public sector employees are increasingly fed up with their organizations. The majority are proud of the work they do, but only 38% trust their executive leadership. And only 55% say their organization practices the core values that they preach every day. The good news? Government HR managers have the opportunity to change the narrative. Here’s how. Define and Communicate Your Values Public sector organizations are, by definition, mission-driven. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services supports the well-being of Americans by providing informational resources for disease prevention, offering social services programs to families in need and helping citizens purchase health insurance. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security protects the United States from terrorist attacks and other potential disasters. It’s important that every member of your organization connects their day-to-day work to these much-larger missions. You can make this happen by explaining your agency’s vision to new hires during onboarding and requiring more tenured staff to complete continuous training sessions. These initiatives will empower employees to go beyond merely understanding these values, like respect, authenticity and sustainability, and actually embody them in their everyday behavior. Train Employees and Managers on Soft Skills Because many public sector organizations are focused on improving the quality of life of all American citizens, they tend to look outward when it comes to making a difference. And while these efforts to benefit the community are crucial, government executives must also think about how to foster a better culture internally. This includes helping individual staff members learn new skills, advance in their roles and remain engaged in their work. One area that’s particularly worth focusing on is the development of soft skills, such as empathy and critical thinking, which are becoming increasingly important for the future of work. More employees today are looking to go beyond job-specific know-how, and for good reason—research shows that soft skills account for 90% of what makes people progress in their careers. These soft skills aren’t only necessary for employees—they also help managers lead better by communicating with empathy and thinking critically. A manager that exhibits these skills is able to gain trust among employees and drive stronger internal communication, allowing their organization to be more successful. Consider which soft skills your employees may be lacking and rethink your learning and development strategy to concentrate more on those areas. Build More Collaborative Teams When it comes to government agencies and organizations, teams tend to be built from the top down. The GS grade level system, which generally determines an employee’s position and pay grade, is more bureaucratic—and less flexible—than the typical hierarchy structures found in the private sector. Still, organizations can take steps to help workers at every level feel like they have a say in decisions. This might mean implementing secure and compliant technology that encourages employees to collaborate digitally. Maybe it’s even as simple as challenging more junior staff to speak up at team meetings and brainstorms. Collaboration isn’t just critical for a more engaged workforce—organizations with a culture of collaboration are five times more likely to see high performance metrics. Ask Employees What They Want Employee expectations at one organization might be vastly different than another. So, as you take steps to increase engagement, it doesn’t hurt to go right to the source. Request feedback through surveys and in-person sessions to understand where your organization can improve. This approach not only gives you actionable insights, but also shows workers that their concerns are being heard. No matter your organization’s current goals and initiatives, there should always be room in the budget to invest in your employees. Without an engaged workforce, the government would cease to exist and your organization wouldn’t have the tools and resources to do what it does best: serve the American people. Learn more about how government agencies can upskill and reskill their people here.