Government service in tough times

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Sag in productivity will drag subtly on economy

By Merilee Dannemann

In a certain office of New Mexico government, a friend tells me, three clerical assistants work with a group of professionals. One clerk is competent and hardworking.  
The other two are incompetent and unreliable. All the professionals try to snag the good employee for their projects.
She works much harder than her peers but is paid the same.  
Eventually she will get tired of this and will either stop working so hard or find another job.
Another professional in state government describes her frustrations with management. She has to travel around the state to do her job, but because of budget constraints she’s not allowed to stay overnight.
Overtime is not authorized. So she drives long distances during work hours, wasting taxpayer dollars and providing less service.
Yet another friend is opening a business that requires a special state certification, including mandatory training administered by the licensing agency.
The employees who present the training are sloppily dressed, unprepared, and impolite, showing little respect for their subject or the valuable time of the attendees, who are trying to open businesses so they can be productive taxpayers. My friend says the required forms are badly written and confusing; if she calls and asks a question, she suspects they move her application to the bottom of the pile. This friend is an expert on public sector management. She herself is a recently retired state government senior manager.
Staff reductions at state agencies are in effect, and we poor citizens are waiting to see how much worse things will get for us. As a survivor of the bureaucracy wars, I offer this perspective:
There are qualified people and unqualified people in most state agencies, and it’s just dumb luck who’s where. Talented and caring people work for incompetent managers.  
Competent managers get stuck with unqualified front-line employees.
Occasionally a governor appoints a thorough-going dud to the top position. What happens then depends how artfully the second-level managers can work around the boss. If they are clever, dedicated, and willing to take armloads of guff, the place will still function, you’ll never know the difference, they will never be thanked, and the dud will get the credit and the big bucks.
Folks in the private sector say this happens where they work also. But there is a critical difference. The private sector has consequences. If a company consistently fails to deliver, the customers will go away and eventually it will go out of business (unless it’s subsidized by government or too big to fail, but that’s for another day).  
Far too many state employees are decent people with inadequate training or preparation for the work they do.
New Mexico state government has never been good at identifying what employees need to know in order to provide good service.
A determined attempt was made some years ago by a small multi-agency committee called the State Training Council, but it had no official statutory standing.
Therefore, the council, along with eight years of work product, simply evaporated between administrations.
What’s going to happen next is predictable. Work that must be done will be done.  Administrative requirements and deadlines will be, as always, top priority. Work that can be postponed will be, such as customer service to those least able to complain.
Some agencies and bureaus —­ the lucky ones — will continue to function happily and productively but many will experience a sag in productivity that will not be measured but will drag subtly on the economy.  
It’s often said the public sector doesn’t fire people who should be fired. True enough.
It also doesn’t do enough to give employees the chance to excel. In this year’s economy, that won’t change.

Merilee Dannemann
© New Mexico News Service 2011