With the recent federal government shut down and the constant gridlock in Washington, it is easy to see why everyday Americans lose confidence in government. Sometimes it seems that instead of working together to spur economic growth and help create much needed jobs, government is about lurching from crisis to manufactured crisis in an effort to push a selfish political agenda. This toxic environment begs the question, “Is government really working for its citizens?”
At least on the local level, “where the rubber hits the road” (or pothole if we are not careful), I can tell you the answer is generally YES. Now, I’m not going to paint a false rosy picture. Local government also has its challenges; much needed process improvements, more innovation required across the board and the ongoing overall mission of providing great service despite budgetary challenges, can seem like insurmountable problems. (Not to mention the constant effort of pushing for a culture that is committed to continuous improvement and positive change.) But after almost four years as City Managing Director & Deputy Mayor, I can say that, despite these challenges, local government confounds many of the myths that are out there about how government works.
For all the talk about what government can do better and through all the criticism about what government is doing wrong, there are hundreds if not thousands of untold success stories. Yes, buried under decades of old myths and false assumptions there are scores of hard working and effective public servants committed to working every day to improve the lives of our citizens. Many of these myths chip away at the public faith in our employees and our basic institutions. Today, I’d like to defuse some of these myths with just a few positive examples of what I’ve experienced from the inside.
Myth No. 1: Public Sector Employees Are Subpar.
Not only is this myth somewhat offensive, but it’s also inaccurate and proven wrong time and time again. Some people wrongly assume the majority of public sector employees have only chosen to work in the public sector (where salaries are traditionally lower) because they were unable to find comparable work in the private sector. In actuality, the opposite is often true. A number of our employees (including myself, our Chief Customer Service Officer, Rosetta Carrington Lue and Deputy Managing Director, Jackie Linton) made a conscious decision to leave the private sector to work in a fulfilling government role. The decision (for me anyway) had to do with giving back–to work to better people’s lives rather than being singularly focused on a company’s bottom line. There is absolutely nothing wrong with working in the private sector and I know from experience that in the right role you can make a real difference. However, public sector employees have the constant charge of serving our citizens and the nearly impossible task of bettering the quality of life of all people despite limited resources, money or appreciation. And with this almost impossible task comes a lower salary than what would be expected in the private sector for similar roles. That type of dedication and commitment to the greater good is not just commendable–it can be heroic (particularly when it comes to public safety). To me, anyone who takes on this calling is anything but “subpar.”
Myth No. 2: Government is Bloated.
Some folks tend to see Government as a big smoke-filled room with too many people doing too little work. Not the case. Government does not over-hire and the days of no-show jobs and unnecessary roles have long passed. In fact, almost every public sector employee wears more than one hat—in some instances too many hats, even. Although I’m sure some small remnants of that old culture exist somewhere within a large local government, as a rule, that is no longer the case. One example of what is now the norm is the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs. This office does a great deal: it advises internal and external diverse organizations; it helps write important policy; it plans special events, it even offers translation services to anyone looking to interact with government and many more duties as required. This is all accomplished with just two very capable people: it’s Executive Director, Jennifer Rodriguez, and Deputy, Fernando Treviño. I can also cite the incredible efforts of our Director of Innovation Management, Andrew Buss, who essentially runs the entire Keyspots operation (80 sites designed to combat the digital divide) in addition to being in charge of large-scale strategic planning for IT. There are many examples like these. Although I’m sure there are a few legacy roles that need to be reevaluated, the overall myth that government is bloated no longer holds true.
Myth No. 3: Change Takes Time.
A common complaint by outsiders with any government project is the length of time for completion. True change efforts are hard in any context but they are especially challenging in government. Systems established after decades of processes that help ensure integrity, internal controls and oversight serve a purpose in government to ensure public dollars aren’t misused or squandered. Beyond the duty to a shareholder or investor, government owes a special responsibility to the citizen taxpayer. That can lead to delays and the lack of agility that might be found in an aggressive start-up company. However, some seem to think that government officials and employees either prolong projects on purpose or are indifferent to completion dates. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Lengthy turnaround times occur in the public sector mostly due to outdated procedures, a burdensome but often integrity ensuring procurement process, outdated technology, a lack of buy-in or a general lack of resources. Public sector employees are working as hard and efficiently as possible within many of the bureaucratic confines they were dealt. While keeping up the day-to-day demands of running a government, there are public sector employees tackling many of these problems on every project, every day. Despite these challenges, change can and does often happen fast. An example of this is new Chief Data Officer, Mark Headd, who joined the City just over a year ago and has began to use innovative ways (using GitHub) to send out technology RFP’s, ensuring that the City is more agile in how we attract the best IT firms. These great efforts were recently highlighted by NPR. In a very short time, under the Mayor’s leadership, Philadelphia has become a national model for open data and innovative problem solving. That is important change that happened very fast.
Myth No. 4: Government is Filled with Waste.
This myth probably has more to do with frustration over paying taxes and valid concerns over efficiency than anything else. Of course, any large organization has to do whatever it can to avoid waste and every large entity will have some. The problem with this myth, however, is that recently, the government doesn’t have much to actually waste. Today, every department has fewer resources and it’s their job to find innovative ways with little money, supplies and people to accomplish their mission. Philly311, for example, has a tiny budget for a department its size. Its minuscule budget leaves little-to-no room for the all important niceties of employee appreciation activities and celebrations that can help drive employee engagement and morale, which is vital to a customer service operation. To combat this, 311 created the Employee-Recognition Committee which raises funds through bi-weekly ticket raffles to throw parties and celebrate holidays. Examples like this run throughout government. The truth is that city government is devoid of the corporate lunches, retreats, bonuses and appreciation gifts available in the private sector. In this economy, government is almost always just trying to make due. Waste is clearly the exception and not the rule.
Myth No. 5: Government is Corrupt.
We all must remain forever diligent to ensure corruption has no place in any workplace public or private. However, corruption in the public sector is particularly unconscionable because it violates a solemn oath, it betrays the public trust and steals from and depletes the public treasury. Unfortunately, history is filled with public scandals that give credence to why some people distrust public servants and think government is corrupt. However, the fact that there have been public scandals does not mean that government is disproportionately corrupt as a whole. This is perhaps the worst myth of all and perhaps the most important to dispel.
The truth is that the overwhelming majority of public servants are dutifully honest. Every profession, even those we hope are the most ethical, has its “bad apples”: lawyers, doctors, clergy, are not immune. But we should not paint all employees with the broad brush of corruption because a few have broken their oath. Here in Philadelphia, the efforts around ethics reform and integrity have been nothing short of remarkable. While large scandals are emblazoned across the headlines (and they should be), government’s diligent efforts against corruption often are not. For example, in 2006, I was honored to be named to a five-member independent ethics board established in Philadelphia to enforce ethics laws within government. The Mayor championed these efforts and today every City employee is required to take ethics training provided by the board. Today, detailed financial disclosure forms are required of all employees and those forms are publically available and usually combed over by the media. Mayor Nutter also appointed the City’s first Chief Integrity Officer, former Federal Prosecutor, Joan Markman, as well as a strong Inspector General, Amy Kurland, who set an important preventive tone and whose mission it is to combat possible corruption within City government. Moreover, all departments are now required to name Ethics Officers who work to ensure a culture of integrity. While these examples might not be as sensational or entertaining as the soundbites of government misconduct, I hope they are at least comforting and help serve to maintain, and in some cases even restore, confidence in government.
In closing, I am proud to say that our government is overwhelmingly made up of public servants who are doing their absolute best to make our City a better place for all of us. And while it can be a tough, sometimes thankless job, it’s also an incredibly important and inspiring one. I hope our public servants are as proud of themselves as I am of them. As we continuously work to dispel these and other myths, I hope the general public can be proud of them too.
Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.