County News Home Page
August 17, 2009
NACo Home Page
NACO Home Current Issue Back Issues Editorial & Advertising
County News


Cutting the Future

Of course local government is suffering under the sad cocktail of a general economic downturn, a “cut the size of the government” mantra and a zeal to limit or lower taxes (especially on property). So what else is new?  In the HR Doctor’s career of 35 years as a city and county HR director and a chief administrative officer, there have been repeated cycles of “Cut government. No, wait, add  new government programs.” The cycle looks like an EKG strip in a cardiologist’s office.

The current reduction trend however, is likely to remain in our future for several years. The hope however, is that the cutting doesn’t become mindless, wanton, and designed to mortgage our future, condemning our kids and grand-kids to live in a less civil society.

The future state of public administration is, without doubt, the most compelling of all HR and public administration issues. Elected officials serve for limited terms. County and city managers come and go. Most bureaucrats come to realize later in their careers that they only rent their chairs from the taxpayers. We are all replaceable.

Despite all of this, there remains one absolutely compelling urgency towards being a good steward of the public interest long-term: that is to plant seeds now to create a future where government leaders are full of hope, optimism, respect and innovation. That objective can only be fulfilled when we make investments in the career development of others. Without that investment, administration decays in the same way that bridges, roadways and buildings decay.

If creating this future is the real imperative in public excellence, why is it that one of the first thoughts of those responsible for putting numbers in Excel spreadsheets for budgets, accounting or auditing often point first to the “opportunity” to cut training, internships, employee education and supervisory development?

A short-term whack in the budget — a change at the expense of the future — is frequently a very poor long-term choice. We come to look back and realize what could have been, and how our actions late one night before a budget deadline create, in effect, administrative malpractice years later. 

A time of fiscal distress and worry about the future is the very best time to reinvigorate the organization with internships, volunteer opportunities, youth employment programs, supervisory training, and mandatory programs for personal accountability and personal behavioral excellence in government.

Usually cutting budgets also has the effect of cutting morale. There are fears of layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts, benefit slashes, as well as fears about how programs will be maintained. Out of the fear comes uncertainty and the reduced willingness to risk innovation. The very employees with valuable experience and knowledge about how to do things better become reluctant to “step up” to accept new responsibility for change. They worry about what the change might mean for them and their families. In fact, a crisis is exactly the time when the “stepping up” concept itself needs to be stepped up in the organization.

This article’s defense of training and development absolutely does not mean simply continuing programs the way they have gone before. In fact, as in many areas of public service, including HR, “just doing things the way they have always been done” leads to a build-up of rust and barnacles on the hull of the USS Local Government. This is also a time to innovate in how training is done. It is a time to reduce costs and make training more meaningful and less mindlessly repetitive. 

There are many ways to do this, however they all begin with asking questions. Does the current training program equip the organization to defend a lawsuit or other challenge after a critical incident such as workplace violence? Do we have clear policies, in which employees have been trained? Does every supervisor know not to walk by something wrong? Are we in a position to say we have a mandatory supervisory academy? In fact, no one should be promoted to supervisor without having to complete the academy curriculum. Do the training programs measurably reflect enhanced public service?

Are we able to say that our training programs are delivered with a great respect for people’s time and the avoidance of overtime costs? Can we say that we use multimedia approaches that make training available online at 3 a.m. for insomniac firefighters as well as in a classroom with 25 semi-conscious employees? In fact, is the training presented in an interesting, compelling way so that people emerge more awake and aware at the end of the program than when they first entered the room?

Does each personnel file contain signed receipts by employees acknowledging that they are aware of key policies in the organization, received training about them and accept their responsibilities under those policies? The latter will include non-discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying and violence prevention and intervention as well as organizational ethics, conflict of interest prevention and the proper use of government property. 

The assessment of where we are in our training efforts represents a GPS waypoint.  By knowing where we are, we can create the vision of future plans to do more, better and more effective training for the same or less money. 

That “more better, less cost” model may be achievable through partnerships with other agencies. After all, these agencies also have very similar if not identical training needs. It may be achievable through collaboration efforts with local colleges and universities. This is especially true of the growing capabilities of public community colleges.

Success may be possible through partnerships with private businesses in the area which also have training needs, facilities and resources government agencies may not have readily available. There can be a public-private sharing of cost. For many agencies it may involve cost-effective consulting arrangements to help in the design and conduct of training. The HR Doctor would be more than happy to provide such an arrangement fully appreciating the cost concerns. The latter may even involve major training activities such as semi-annual management “stand-down” days in which current practices can be reviewed, updated and presented, often by an outside speaker, in a compelling context which would not occur otherwise in the press of day-to-day business. 

Stepping back from the urgency of an instant budget fix, it is very important to recognize the need to be a “Johnny Appleseed” administrator. Looking for opportunities to build capacity for the future makes attention to training and development more important now than ever before. 

This importance is further evidenced by recognizing what will happen soon, as huge numbers of baby boomers leave the workplace. They will leave in the hands of the next generation of employees the stewardship of public programs. A huge number of air traffic controllers in the Federal Aviation Administration, for example, are now eligible for retirement.  Imagine that you are on what the airlines regrettably refer to as “final approach” to an airport in a jumbo jet where the air traffic control staff is full of rather new employees just out of air traffic controller fantasy camp.

This is not a pleasant scenario for passengers to think about, but perhaps it brings home the importance of training and development even when we think it’s not affordable. In fact, what is really not affordable in serving the public is to risk malpractice by failing to plan for and create an affirmative public service future.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •



Job Market / Classifieds

Financial Services News

The H.R. Doctor Is In

What's In a Seal?

News from the Nation's Counties

NACo On the Move

Research News

Profiles In Service

In Case You Missed It ...

Tools for Tough Times
Write to Your Editor
Print This Page

Bookmark and Share
NACo Home  |  Current Issue  |  Back Issues  |  Editorial & Advertising
© Copyright 1996-2002 County News