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Something’s Happening in Local Government

“There’s something happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear” are the opening lyrics to the Buffalo Springfield 60’s anti-war song. While protest is not our focus, something indeed is happening with today’s workforce and economy and town and city managers are being challenged to both make sense of it and address it. Local government is changing, our workforce is different, and citizens and elected officials have high expectations for results.

While there are many challenges facing town managers, workforce issues rise to the top. The Center for State & Local Government Excellence survey “State and Local Government Workforce: 2014 Trends” found that the majority of public sector managers cited their “top concerns are recruiting and retaining qualified personnel, staff development, succession planning, employee morale, competitive compensation packages, public perception of government workers, reducing employee health care costs and dealing with employee workload challenges.” Like a freight train screaming down the tracks, today’s manager must tackle these issues.

Let’s look at five of them:

1. Aging workforce

The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) reported in their 2012 State of the Profession survey that 63% of municipal employees were 51 or older with nearly 24% 61 or older. A Black & Veatch’s strategic direction survey reported an aging workforce is among the top ten issues affecting the water industry. A 2013 Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD) survey report that 62% of electric utility workers have the potential to retire or leave the workplace by 2020. Whether it is police, fire, librarians, or wastewater operators, aging baby boomers are beginning to exit the workplace in what some are calling the “silver tsunami” and the public sector, as a whole is ill prepared for the exodus. And to make matters worse, fewer young people are entering the profession. Volunteers are not joining the fire departments; electric engineers are choosing high tech over public power; and environmental professionals prefer consulting to wastewater treatment.

2. Creating a performance based culture

The municipal, union mentality culture must end. Communities can no longer afford bloated workforces, crippling work rules, huge unfunded pensions, and pay plans based on length of service rather than performance. Today’s workplace culture must reward performance and productivity and encourage employee engagement resulting in worker retention and attracting the best external talent available. Union work rules that hamper operations must be replaced with those that support flexibility, and pay must be based on merit and include performance incentives. In addition, town managers should emphasize priorities and goal setting, measuring and monitoring performance and not just effort and activity. Employees must be flexible, customer centric, and engaged.

3. Managing a multidimensional and changing workforce

Today’s workforce is changing and different. As boomers age out, we are seeing a different look than we have come to expect. Whether at town hall, public works, the water or fire department, we now find more women, individuals of color and youth. As the workforce becomes more diverse, managers must have the skills to lead this “different” workplace. Engaging a younger generation, with workers who have a different perspective and have distinct expectations of their boss and work, unlike other generations, will require significant adjustments, patience, tolerance and the skills to manage.

4. Recruitment, retention and rewards

There is a new “3 R’s.” Finding individuals who want to work in public safety, public power, wastewater and any other aspect of local government have never been harder. Managers will have to find ways to make government careers more attractive to a younger generation, while competing with the private sector that may have deeper pockets and have shiner toys to dangle. Work/life balance, flexibility, career development and telecommuting will be needed to attract this new generation of worker. And to retain them, communities will have to reward workers with cash (merit pay, incentives, benefits) and non-cash (opportunities, training, titles). The lure of a job in government has faded. Competitive pay has become a minimum threshold to attract and retain talent. Money talks.

5. A strategic approach to managing

Managers and elected officials must now make decisions about the direction of their business utilizing a strategic framework. No longer can they simply move from crisis to crisis, election to election. A big picture, business approach to government will be needed, discarding “how we’ve always done it this way” approach to a reinvention of government that addresses today and tomorrow’s realities. There will be a greater reliance on technology, creativity, innovation, best practices and benchmarking, and these require a new kind of leader to manage a new kind of workforce that can thrive in this new world. In the past, public utilities were lead by engineers, electrical engineers in power, environment engineers in water and wastewater. No longer. Today the need is likely for an MBA or MPA. Towns and their utilities are multimillion-dollar businesses and require a strong businessperson to run them. It is not a place for on-the-job training.

The 21st century leader and their elected officials must think differently. Successful leaders must have the skill to look around corners, while making bold decisions in addressing the changing market. Their mandate will be to:

  1. Develop a strong workforce that is energized, embraces change, is resident centric and strives for excellence.
  2. Create a workplace culture that sheds the municipal stereotypes of entitlement, bureaucracy and coldness with one that is productive, effective and efficient to one that is customer focused, friendly and helpful. Town hall must always be welcoming.
  3. Think long range and not just about today’s firefight. Managers and elected officials must understand the big picture and not just how it will affect this year’s budget. Maximum impact must be part of the new lexicon and that means taking a strategic approach to governing.
  4. Become a learning environment. Continuous education for all staff, elected officials and citizens are essential. Exposure to new and different ideas stimulates new thinking, creativity and innovation, challenging and questioning the previously accepted norms.
  5. Be passionate about government. Leading a municipality is a worthy profession. Show energy. Get excited. It’s contagious and it is essential in recruiting and retaining star performers; motivating staff; and engaging residents and ratepayers. But most importantly, it is crucial in moving people forward, persuading them and getting them to follow.

The challenges of the 21st century will be great. Managers and elected officials will have to discard old notions and embrace new thinking. Continuous change and experimentation will be the norm. Town halls must be incubators of management best practices.

There indeed is something happening here and that’s a good thing.

Rick Dacri is a management adviser, president of Dacri & Associates, and author of the book Uncomplicating Management: Focus on Your Stars and Your Company Will Soar (rick@dacri.com; www.dacri.com)

 

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