Retooling our Organizational Culture

Creating more innovative local governments means changing your culture.

BLOG POST | Oct 3, 2017

by Dan Singer, ICMA member, Poway, CA

Government cultures have been described as sterile, if not stale; unexciting, if not stodgy.  Local government cultures are perceived to lack innovation and creativity or that entrepreneurial spirit often found in the private sector.

Bureaucracies are slow to adapt and change if they change at all.  And as Ford Foundation’s Lou Winnick once said: “In government, all of the incentives are in the direction of not making mistakes.” It is no wonder government moves and learns slowly and lacks innovation.

Understandably, organizations are driven by rules, procedures, policies, and laws meant to minimize risk, create certainty in the work environment, and prevent discrimination and harassment.  All laudable goals. But sometimes policies are so encompassing and rigid they work to stymie creativity, risk-taking and individual expression.

Today's younger employees, aka the Millennials (but soon to include the post-Millennials, also labeled the iGeneration or Generation Z), aren't turning to the public sector for a career. They are accustomed to thinking about innovation and entrepreneurship and environments that are flexible, adaptable and exciting. And for them, a job in government does not fit that bill.  They seek greater autonomy and individualism and they want to participate in decision-making at an early stage because they are driven to “make a difference” in what they do.

That is where Cal-ICMA’s new Talent Initiative comes in.  This is the latest response to the dwindling interest in public service by studying how we can attract, retain and grow more quality talent at the local level.  Through extensive input and data gathering - including a statewide survey and numerous focus groups - the Talent Initiative is exploring the challenges we face in the public sector and how to become more attractive, especially to a changing workforce.

From the local level, it is clear we need to take a fresh look at how dynamic and flexible our organizations are (or are not).  We need to ask: Is it possible to change our organizational cultures in the face of existing rules and practices and public expectations?  Is it possible to allow our organizations to be more fluid and adaptable while still creating a safe environment in which to thrive?

I suggest the answer is absolute yes.  Here are a few simple examples of how we can get there.

•Our job descriptions have the capacity to be dynamic and purpose-driven, not simply focused on the functions we require, but rather the talent and qualities we are seeking and the opportunities employees have to contribute to the community.

•What if employees wishing to expand their understanding and experience and learn and grow in an organization were provided an opportunity to spend time in a different department or on a project outside of their discipline or attend conferences normally reserved for senior managers.

•Instead of the usual Dress Codes, our organizations all maintain, why couldn’t employees create their own dress code within certain safety and sensitivity parameters.

•And what if employees were allowed to create their own work title that better describes their function in addition to the formal classification they hold.

These are achievable, and one could argue necessary considerations if our organizations are going to continue to become more creative and effective in meeting the needs of tomorrow's residents and customers and, as significantly, in attracting young women and men to the otherwise sterile halls of government employment.

Local government must find a way to be more attractive, since it is culture, not money, that ultimately brings meaning to the work we do in the field of public service.


ICMA Blog


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