In my experience, public sector agencies and government entities (i.e., cities, counties, states) face eight common obstacles to their success. See how many of these issues you have experienced, either as a provider or a user of public services.
1. Lack of a common “big picture.”
The biggest obstacle to success for any organization is the failure of leaders to articulate and/or communicate the “big picture” – i.e., the value that the organization provides. Without this information, it’s impossible to set effective priorities, which means that one person’s claim on resources is just as valid as another’s. How can leaders allocate resources effectively when there is no overall direction to guide them?
2. Leaders’ inability or unwillingness to establish and enforce priorities.
One of the critical responsibilities of all leaders is to set and enforce priorities. In the public sector, setting priorities often is challenging because of the complexity and variety of stakeholders whose interests conflict with each other, and sometimes are diametrically opposed. In some cases, leaders simply don’t know how to set priorities – a serious deficiency, but one that can be remedied. In other cases, public sector leaders are unwilling to set and/or to enforce priorities because they know that some stakeholder group(s) will be unhappy with them. Too often, for example, we see scenarios in which politicians demand “proportional sharing,” or equal budget cuts across agencies. Or they identify some priorities, only to change them when confronted by stakeholders who wanted a different outcome. How can an organization be successful when its leaders shirk one of their most important responsibilities?
3. A dearth of courageous leaders.
I define courageous leaders as people who focus relentlessly on the big picture, even when they pay a personal price for doing so. Although such leaders are a critical success factor in all organizations, public sector agencies and units in particular desperately need individuals who are willing to focus on the greater good, setting priorities that serve the big picture, and allocating resources in ways that support those priorities. While it’s easy to point fingers at public sector leaders and label them as self-serving individuals who are only looking for ways to be elected to their next jobs (or to keep their current jobs) – and there are many who fit this description – let’s not forget that the public also bears responsibility for the lack of courageous leaders. Specifically, accepting mediocre or poor performance or results enables the behavior that caused it in the first place. We are setting organizations up for failure when we don’t support and nurture courageous leaders.
4. Ineffective resource allocation.
Successful organizations use their resources wisely. The ability to allocate scarce resources effectively requires these critical success factors: (a) a clearly articulated and communicated big picture, (b) specific priorities that support achievement of the big picture, and (c) courageous leaders. In short, the things that need to be in place for effective resource allocation are precisely those that public sector organizations often lack.
5. Inexperience in questioning assumptions.
Because assumptions have expiration dates, it’s good business practice periodically to assess the assumptions that serve as the foundation for decisions and practices. Yet public sector leaders often fail to do this. My experience is that they tend to layer things on top of each other, seldom taking the time to ask whether what’s underneath still is necessary for the success of the organization.
6. Willingness to settle for mediocrity.
Acceptance of mediocrity runs rampant in the public sector – e.g., mediocrity of service levels, of employee performance, of politicians’ decisions and actions. For years, the public has looked down upon those who work in the public sector, decrying the mediocrity – yet accepting it. Having worked as an employee and as a consultant for years in public (and private) sector organizations, I know that this embrace of mediocrity is not limited to outsiders: it’s all too common within organizations as well. When mediocrity is the standard by which performance is gauged, how can organizations possibly be successful?
7. Accountability run amok.
Imagine that accountability is a continuum, with “no accountability whatsoever” at one end and “extreme micromanagement” at the other. Now imagine situations in which you have stakeholders who reside at or near the “no accountability” end, and public sector leaders who work mostly at or near the “extreme micromanagement” end. What you have is a recipe for mediocrity at best, and failure at worse.
8. Bureaucracies that block organizational success.
The words “government” and “bureaucracy” often are used interchangeably. One result of layering things (e.g., regulations, programs, processes) on top of each other without considering whether any have outlived their usefulness is dysfunctional behaviors and outcomes. For example, RFPs (requests for proposals) from government agencies and entities tend to be hefty documents that can run well over one hundred pages. Whatever the size, my experience is that the actual description of the project is dwarfed by the blizzard of forms that document the myriad of requirements with which successful bidders must comply. (My favorite “You’ve got to be kidding me!” example of such a compliance issue is the City of Los Angeles’ insistence that contractors sign a document attesting to the fact that neither they nor any of their ancestors ever owned slaves.) How many stakeholder interests are being served poorly or not at all because of irrelevant restrictions and rules? And let’s not get started on how many people are required to process all this paperwork – before any real work can begin. Bureaucracy is a death knoll for success.
How many of these issues resonate with you? What will you do to address them? In a future post I will share some of my own suggestions about how to minimize these obstacles.
© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.