What Local Government Cannot Afford

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Leisha DeHart-Davis

Leisha DeHart-Davis is an Albert and Gladys Coates Distinguished Associate Professor of Public Administration in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government. She studies workplace dynamics, including employee voice and empowerment, organizational structure, diversity and gender in public organizations. Her book, Creating Effective Rules in Public Sector Organizations, is forthcoming from Georgetown University Press in 2017. She holds a PhD in public policy from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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Let’s begin with an idea: local governments cannot afford to be bad employers. Put another, way, without money to reward and retain good employees, local governments must seek to be the best employers possible. This means moving towards inclusive workplaces that empower employees, listen to employee ideas, recognize great performance and nurture and develop careers. This also means moving away from command-and-control structures that devalue employee voice, minimize employee participation, and tolerate bad management.

I arrived at this notion (which many of you reached long ago) after participating in a Thursday session of the North Carolina Local Government Budget Association (NCLGBA) Summer Conference in Greensboro, NC. Randall Lyons of Guilford County arranged for the group to discuss employee surveys and non-monetary motivation. Monica Croskey, strategy and performance manager for Rock Hill, SC, talked about her city’s employee engagement survey (which, by the way, is an exemplary model to follow). John Dean, HR Director of Guilford County, spoke of how intense fiscal and political pressures have eroded local government employee morale.

The panel concluded that, to retain good employees and deliver quality citizen service, local governments HAVE to be great employers. Which led to some of the panel’s suggestions for boosting morale under less than ideal circumstances:

Listen to employee perspectives and act on them. Monica talked about Rock Hill’s first employee survey, which revealed issues with performance appraisal. Management immediately took action to improve the process. A year later, employees appreciated management’s responsiveness, a shift that showed up in the second round of employee survey results.

Offer work-life balance. Local governments can be flexible in how they structure work, even if it takes creative thinking on the manager’s part. As John Dean commented, take a holistic approach to employees and recognize that they have lives outside of work.

Recognize Employees For a Job Well Done. Monica pointed out that the Rock Hill survey showed that employees truly valued the things that managers sometimes take for granted: employee picnics and recognition lunches. (Check out examples at http://bit.ly/RockHill). These approaches don’t require big budgets, just sincerity, appreciation and focus on the part of management.

Preserve training and development. Ironically, research suggests that training and development — the first item on the budgetary chopping block — may be the most cost-effective way to improve organizational performance. Even if you can’t give employees the raises they deserve, you can focus like a laser beam on their career development.

Equip supervisors to be effective coaches and group leaders. Sometimes employees are promoted to supervisory positions with zero training. Which can lead to little dictatorships among those who equate supervision with power and not stewardship. Train new supervisors in people skills such as conflict resolution and communications, as well as in your organization’s philosophy towards its people.

No doubt becoming an employer of choice is easier in flush budgetary times. But the reality is that most local governments don’t have that luxury. Nor do they have the option of being bad employers. Luckily, with the commitment of local government managers and a vision of stewardship of the workforce, local governments can move the needle in competing for employees who want meaningful work in a positive, nurturing environment.

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