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National Association of Counties • Washington, D.C.      Vol. 34, No. 13 • July 1, 2002

The H.R. Doctor Is In

Team Government

As the HR Doctor was writing this article, the sports world was in the midst of a sea of championship events. The World Cup was being played. The National Basketball Association Championship series and hockey’s Stanley Cup competition were underway and Americans were waiting to find out if there would be another Triple Crown winner as the Belmont Stakes horse race approached.

The most successful teams in these events all share some common characteristics, that are sometimes lost to the teams of people who should be making government extraordinary in every county in America.

First, the sports have clear rules and enforcement mechanisms that are applied, for the most part, consistently and equitably. Yes, there are the judging difficulties of more subjectively measured sports, such as ice skating and diving. However, for the most part, the rules involve three strikes and you’re out rather than three strikes if over 5’8” and left handed verses four strikes on alternate Thursdays.

It is true that sports, like every other component of society, has undergone a slow and often painful puberty when it comes to the application of rules to women or persons of color. Nonetheless, a touchdown remains six points and all the teams know it. A basketball goal from 30’ away remains three points. Imagine what would happen if the rules of a sporting contest were not clear or if some players chose to operate from a different rulebook?

Goal conflicts will not result in championship performance, whether in sport or in local government. Confusion about rules results in an attorney feeding frenzy. It does not serve the public well.

Failure to provide training for staff members, who are expected to carry out the organization’s policies and reach the goals, is administrative malpractice. Just ask the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which, in a recent age discrimination complaint, held that a failure to provide training to managers amounted to reckless indifference. Hardly a county or city attorney in America would be particularly pleased hearing words like that from an appellate court.

This was an unlawful employment discrimination case but it could have been a citizen complaint at a county commission budget hearing, or it could have been a newspaper editorial chiding the organization for some problem behavior or performance failure.

The HR Doctor once arranged for county managers to spend a day on an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt. The Roosevelt is gigantic and complex. Its work is dangerous and is performed 24 hours per day, 7 days per week under extraordinarily difficult conditions of weather or combat. The average age of members of the 5,000-person crew is about 19. Employees are being transferred in and out regularly.

As county leaders, you may be in an organization with 1,000 or more employees or fewer. It does not matter. The average age in a county government in America is certainly not 19. In many counties, the average age of an employee is in the 40s. There may be decades of experience on the resume of individual experts, including advanced degrees, certifications and years of practical experience. The offices, generally, are not open 24 hours per day and combat is rare — at least physical combat.

A sizeable proportion of county employees performs indoor work with no heavy lifting. Given these very significant differences in conditions and demands, why is it that aircraft carrier crews perform with amazing success, while county governments, with all the apparent advantages described above, often appear to lurch along, stumbling with apparent internal staff and leadership conflicts? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

As this question was explored on the Roosevelt, the answer quickly became clear. The key element is a strongly felt common bond of mission focus and commitment to the goal.

Everyone from the clerk to the medical technician to the ship store’s personnel and the air crews understand the mission and accept responsibility for their work towards its overall success. In county government, we sometimes are not sure what our mission is. Different groups perceive a conflicting mission and behave in ways which hurt or retard the overall effort.

If you don’t believe me, just visit your nearest county during budget hearings. There is often a sense that the sporting event underway is world wrestling rather than an honest event. A recommendation by the county administrator may be undermined by a department head or a union or some other group, which has difficulty spelling the word team.

In many smaller counties especially, there is a particular problem in the relationship between the elected governing body and an elected department head such as the sheriff or the district attorney. The relationship is not only one of conflict and lack of teamwork but it can evolve into personal animosity, stonewalling and political, legal or other attacks. The organization suffers, staff members suffer and the taxpayers suffer the loss of productivity and the loss of opportunity.

Ironically enough, the dueling administrators suffer in the end as well. No one wins, and there is no sport here. A NACo focus group of county leaders recently identified this problem of lack of internal cooperation as a critical weakness in the county form of government. This problem is also an infection inside school districts, cities and special districts. It is, of course, unlikely that the best answer is going to be the elimination of elected offices and the creation of the office of county commandant.

Interestingly enough, by force of individual personalities, one official often ends up wearing a striped shirt and blowing a whistle to help move meetings along and resolve internal disputes. In many places, this role can fall to the head of human resources.

If there is one particularly important factor in curing this blight, it is visionary leadership. “A leader reminds us of who we are,” said Walt Disney. “A leader is a dealer in hope,” said Napoleon. Even the humble HR Doctor has a quote: “A leader creates an environment for common action and purpose.”

Perhaps county workshops, focus groups, or regional meetings, addressing this leadership-gap issue would help. I believe they would. However, all the meetings and all the promises made on Capitol Hill or in state capitals don’t matter if they are not carried through back home.

The winners of the real government championships will be those who play best when they are enabling the team to reach overall goals and to be successful. If team government and its missions and goals are not clear and supported in your county, this would be a great time to change that situation.

The HR Doctors hopes you score many goals!

All the best,
Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •