A Dozen Easy Principles for Public Sector Program Success

This post is adapted from a memo I prepared for my department’s management back in 2013. At the time, the Department of Environmental Services (DES)‘ new Director engaged the services of Denison Consulting to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the organization. DES is Arlington County’s second largest department, with 15 Bureaus and nearly 1,000 full-time, part-time and contracted employees doing everything from transportation, development and streets, trash and recycling, facilities and water/utilities. Getting a handle on this sprawling group and moving it all in the right direction was the goal. A culture survey was given to all employees that Denison measured on four essential traits and twelve focus areas of organizations:

  1. Adaptability: (Creating Change, Customer Focus, Organizational Learning);
  2. Mission: (Strategic Direction & Intent, Goals & Objectives, Vision);
  3. Consistency: (Core Values, Agreement, Coordination and Integration); and
  4. Involvement: (Empowerment, Team Orientation, Capabilities Development).

These are all benchmarked for comparison to thousands of other companies and public agencies across the country. Each of the Department’s 15 Bureaus was benchmarked against each other. My Bureau, the Division of Transportation’s Commuter Services Bureau, stood out as an outlier of amazingly good results. It scored much higher than the other 14 Bureaus and against the other public sector state and local agencies DES was benchmarked against. Something good was happening here! Department management asked me to put together an explanation of why I thought this was so.

It was not a surprise to many that Commuter Services ranked so highly on the Denison Culture Survey. For years the Bureau has been locally and nationally recognized, as one of the most innovative and impactful units of it’s kind in North America. What follows is an adaptation of the explanation memo accounting for the success:*

A Dozen Easy Principles That Have Guided Our Commuter Services Team to Success

  1. Put the Customer First
    We are public servants. We are here to serve. We may work for the government but we pride ourselves on not being bureaucratic and amazing our customers by going beyond their expectations.
  1. Share (Transparency)
    Managers share information (transparency). Sharing fosters responsibility for the program and for each other. Sharing also means don’t be afraid to be real. Share your thoughts, feelings, enthusiasm, credit, ideas and passion. Share yourself.
  1. Invest In Team Building
    Create a sense of “us.” It is okay to have a “them” as it fosters the competitive juices. Learn about each other as people and how what each does at work contributes back to the whole. Everyone must understand and know others have their back! This allows people to “confront the brutal facts” without fear.
  1. Empower, Coach, and Develop Leaders
    Empower people at all levels to take action (see #1). Use the coaching model to teach. Develop leadership within the organization regardless of “supervisory” authority.
  1. Do Emergenetics
    Emergenetics creates understanding. About ourselves, our co-workers and our customers. Emergenetics is way easier than Myers Briggs.
  1. Develop and Sustain a Vision and Mission**
    All staff should be involved. Know the difference between the two. Come back to it often. Everyone is responsible for the mission and for telling the boss when we’re off of it.
  1. Build a Strategic Plan
    Everyone should be involved in the big picture. This should be done every year. Use vision and mission as basis. What are we doing in this next year? Next few years? Better yet do a six-year rolling plan.
  1. Do the Math
    Everyone (transparency) should know where the money is coming from and what it’s spent on. This fosters accountability by all.
  1. Assess Performance, Measure Results
    Did we accomplish what we set out to do last year? Go down the list. Why or why not. Celebrate the successes and learn from what didn’t work. Do this with everyone. Publish reports. Put it on the web.
  1. Invest in Research and Development 
    Ask your customers how you are doing on a regular basis. Ask citizens what they think. Ask businesses what they think. Investigate. Measure. Test. This is about knowledge. Impact. What works? What doesn’t? Why? R&D makes you better.
  1. Foster a Culture of Learning
    This is about knowledge and curiosity. Industry and related best practices. What’s new? What are others are doing that works, doesn’t, and why? Books. Journals. Guest speakers. Seminars. Field trips. Conferences.
  1. Volunteer, Partner and Give Back
    Encourage participation and leadership in trade associations. Volunteer to do presentations and assist at industry invents. Network. Doing these things fosters respect for other’s work. And this makes #3 (“us”) okay. Doing these things always pays dividends back to your organization.
  1. Be Ballsy. (Baker’s Dozen Bonus)
    Just do it. Be unafraid. It is easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask permission.

These principles may seem obvious or simple. And yet often times government agencies of all sizes and at all levels simply fail to do even a few of these, let alone all 12. That’s a shame. I’ve witnessed first hand how applying these principles consistently and over time helped this one local government agency do amazing work and become the highest performing and most respected team in it’s industry. In future posts I’ll chat about how to do or operationalize each of these. I hope others can learn from our lesson.

* It should be noted that the culture that brought about Commuter Services’ success and the development of these principles was made in full partnership with my longtime ACCS Management Team mates: Lois DeMeester, Howard Jennings, Jay Freschi and Bobbi Greenberg
** “Easy Button” was our Bureau’s shorthand for our Mission. All anyone on our team had to do was remember: “Make It Easy for people to use transit, bike, walk and share the ride” and we’re doing our job. An Easy Button was given to each Commuter Services employee when they were on-boarded as a reminder of the unit’s mission.

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