High-Performance Government

Commentary, Core Public Sector Reform, Lee Harding, Public Sector

“It’s Time for High-Performance Government,” Howard Risher says in his 2017 book. Amen to that.

But how?

Risher says, it’s not about efficiency, it’s about making workers engaged. And on that score, government is 30 years behind the curve.

The 1990’s began with a recession in both Canada and the United States. This forced companies to re-think the way business was done. Rankings emerged on the best places to work, with discussions, studies, and surveys focussed on how positive and supportive the work place environment is. People feel best about their jobs—and the most engaged—when they know their contribution matters to their bosses and colleagues, and those they serve. This transformation can bring productivity up by at least 10 per cent.

This is a gap that needs to be filled. A 2014 Gallup poll of federal workers in the United States revealed that worker productivity and engagement was 11 per cent lower than their private sector counterparts. A separate poll revealed that 71 per cent of state and local employees were disengaged with their jobs.

There are important reasons to believe it is just as bad in Canada. Here, public sector sick days average 11.2 per person per year—far above the private sector average of 6.8 days per person. This is indicative of low morale or a lack of passion for the work. The glitches federal workers have suffered getting paychecks the last two years sure can’t help, either.

Risher says that the way to a brighter future has already been shown in the past. Companies that successfully adjusted to the 1990s recession eliminated a layer of management, but it wasn’t the mere cost savings that helped. As fewer managers had more people to be responsible for, they were forced to delegate responsibilities to others. This required more thought, ingenuity, and autonomy to non-managers. Consequently, their engagement and job satisfaction improved.

“When employees believe their efforts are valued and there is mutual respect and trust, they will commit to achieving credible goals” Risher writes. “A starting point might be to solicit their ideas to improve performance. They will have many.”

One disadvantage government workers have is that their services are often done in a unionized environment to a public that is subjected to their monopoly. Performance bonuses, often resisted by unions, can be part of the answer of empowering workers. But nothing beats a competitive marketplace to inspire workplace ideas and get employees feeling that their jobs mattered, particularly to the citizens they serve.

Another 1990’s example illustrates this well. Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith contracted out many of his city’s services, but encouraged existing employees to bid on the contracts so they could continue with their jobs. The city even helped their workers compose bids, but outside proposals were also considered. Bureaucratic status quo gave way to entrepreneurial ingenuity…in the very same people!

Even pothole repair was revolutionized in Indianapolis. City crews turned into private crews reduced costs from $425 per ton to fill potholes to $307 per ton, while productivity rose from 3.1 lane miles per day to 5.2 lane miles. The secret to doing the job 25 per cent cheaper and 68 per cent faster came from remounting some patching equipment. This allowed crews to go from two trucks with eight workers to one truck with five workers.

All of this puts the hopes for “high-performance government” into context for Canada. Yes, we want government workers to be at work, to be engaged, to only take sick days when they are truly sick, to be solicited for ideas, and for those ideas to be used only if they are good ideas. But such things happen best when the private sector is unleashed. The best way for government to do things better. Canadians need to unleash the marketplace itself to get things done faster, better, and cheaper.