Why High-Performing Government Managers Drive Improvement From the Front Lines


Practical Innovation in Government is the largest study of government performance in almost three decades. Its major finding is that the highest public-sector performers—whether standalone units, large departments, or entire cities or states—all drive improvement from the front lines. In contrast, in the business world, improvement is typically driven by management. Although our study found plenty of examples of management-driven continuous improvement programs in government, they were invariably the low performers.

If you’re a government manager who wants to improve your team’s performance, this article will explain two key findings: 1) Why management-driven improvement doesn’t work well in government, and 2) Why front-line–driven improvement is so powerful and perfectly suited to improving government operations. Whether you run a small unit or manage workers statewide, you need to anchor your efforts in front-line–driven change.

Why Top-Down Government Improvements Are Challenging

It seems obvious that top and middle managers need to drive the most improvements. After all, they’re the ones with authority and resources. In business, if top or middle managers want to make a change, they usually have the power to do so. But the government isn’t a business, and management-driven change is much more challenging in a government setting. Here are three reasons why:

Reason 1: Bureaucratic Hurdles.

When government managers want to create change, they typically face many political, regulatory, and bureaucratic hurdles that can make the process painfully slow, incredibly time-consuming, and even professionally risky.

Public-sector managers also deal with diverse stakeholders and many checks and balances. Some of these checks and balances are in the form of divided authority, but most are embedded in policies and rules that were put in place to ensure consistency, fairness, openness, due process, or ethical behavior. The result is that managers who try to make even modest improvements must contend with a bureaucratic haze of uncertainty, where it’s not always clear what’s allowed.

All in all, this makes it far more complex and challenging for managers to make significant changes.

Reason 2: Budgeting Pitfalls.

Many management-driven improvements are large enough to have budget implications. In government, the budgeting process for large projects often involves political wrangling, horse-trading, and compromise in a giant zero-sum game where different constituencies with different agendas compete for limited resources. Funding an improvement project usually means not funding something else, which means other people will resist the change.

Reason 3: Leaders Lack On-the-Job Knowledge.

The nature of government leadership is very different than in the private sector. As one city manager in Sweden pointed out to us, “Democratic government is one of the few places where leaders generally know far less about how their organizations work than the people who report to them.”

When managers propose an improvement that needs top-level support, they often find themselves trying to make the case to leaders who lack the background and understanding to make an informed decision. And on the flip side, when elected officials start imposing “improvements” themselves, they are often disruptive and don’t lead to improvements at all.

One Canadian school superintendent told us that every time a new provincial education minister takes office, the central ministry sends out a new group of educational “experts” to push the latest teaching “innovations” in her schools. Since these outsiders have little understanding of local realities, their “improvements” almost always create more problems than they solve.

Why Front-Line–Driven Improvements Are Incredibly Successful

Even though management-driven improvements are difficult in government, the picture is very different for front-line–driven improvements. These improvements are generally small and inexpensive to implement. As such, they fly under the radar of customers, colleagues from other departments, and higher-level managers, so they encounter little to no resistance.

To understand this point, let’s look at a front-line idea from one of the high performers in our study: Denver’s Department of Excise and Licensing.

A computer and printer had been set up in a department lobby so that applicants who needed to submit criminal background checks could conduct and print these checks themselves. The problem? The specialized computer software wasn’t user-friendly, so customers constantly got stuck and had to ask a licensing technician for help. On average, this happened 36 times a day, with each incident taking about five minutes of a service technician’s time.

The improvement idea, developed by several technicians, was to create a simplified instruction manual with screenshots and arrows to walk applicants through the process step by step. It eliminated the confusion, saving three hours in technician time per day—a total of 788 labor hours per year!

This was only one idea in an ongoing stream of improvement ideas implemented by 39 staff members that radically transformed the department’s performance.

Because ideas like these are small and fly under the larger organization’s radar screen, they’re effectively invisible to people outside the department. Even if an outsider does become aware of one of the ideas, why would he or she object to it? And because many front-line ideas are about how the work is done, these ideas are often used repeatedly, sometimes hundreds or thousands of times, like the instruction manual improvement described above. So, while front-line ideas are easy and inexpensive to implement, collectively, they’re an amazingly powerful source of improvement.

To supercharge performance, the front line is where government managers should start.

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Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder have helped hundreds of organizations in more than 30 countries improve their performance, including Cleveland Clinic, the Federal Reserve Bank, General Electric, the government of Singapore, Heineken, IKEA, Kraft, Liberty Mutual, Siemens, the U.S. Navy, and The Washington Post. They are the leading world experts in front-line idea systems and the bestselling authors of Ideas Are FreeThe Idea-Driven Organization, and Practical Innovation in Government: How Front-Line Leaders Are Transforming Public-Sector Organizations. Learn more at alanrobinson.com and dmschroeder.com.

By Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder

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