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National Association of Counties * Washington, DC           Vol. 31, No. 1 * January 18, 1999

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Taking Things for 'Granite'

The New Year recently passed and soon a new decade, century and millennium will begin. One of the hallmarks of these passages is a sense of continuity and stability.

The HR Doctor observes that in public administration, many things are assumed to be immutable. Traditional ways of doing business, including complex grievance procedures, civil service rules, purchasing requirements, etc., are deemed to be set in stone – or, if you prefer, granite. Ironically, even procedures in some jurisdictions to buy new computers – the symbol of our fast-changing, high technology environment – are hard to change and appear to be overly complicated and time consuming.

Several hundred years ago, anyone who was anyone agreed, without giving the matter a second thought, that the Earth was the center of the universe. Anyone who dared challenge this prevailing model or paradigm was in great professional and personal danger. Mr. Galileo, for example, urging a change to another model, was threatened with loss of pension and benefits and other perhaps even more serious consequences if he continued speaking out. Eventually, these older paradigms increasingly fail to answer our questions and meet our needs. A slow building crisis gives rise to people questioning, albeit quietly at first, the established practice and beginning to say, "Why don’t we try it this way?"

The HR Doctor urges the regular review of certain "set in stone" ideas within HR and within a public agency in general.

Instead of "taking things for granite," and having reward systems that support the status quo instead of innovation, try some modifications. Include in every performance evaluation a specific element to consider how much the employee contributed to organizational innovation and increased productivity.

Develop an agency plan that includes but goes beyond the "kind and exciting words" of a mission statement to explore just how well the agency is meeting customer needs. For that matter, does the agency even recognize that it has customers … or that they have needs? Develop a customer service plan that includes periodic focus groups or other techniques for customer feedback.

Schedule an all-agency retreat or meeting to get away from the day-to-day work processes and focus on the future. Use the retreat, itself, as a metaphor to demonstrate the importance and the priority on innovation that management is now supporting.

Add bonuses to the compensation plan – cash or time-off rewards which are not part of base pay and are used to highlight achievement and ideas which make for progressive change.

Agencies with civil service systems should consider modifying the extent to which civil service protections apply.

Managerial and professional positions are strong targets to transform into well-rewarded and respected "exempt from civil service" categories. As the HR Doctor has also previously written, hundred-year-old-civil service recruitment, pay and tenure concepts are prime candidates for evolution in the 21st century.

Finally, instill in new employees a clear vision that agency leaders respect and honor innovation. As an agency leader (i.e., a role model), make sure you practice that concept personally. For all of the benefits of continuity, for all of the honor we should do to establish tradition, it is important to recognize that in bureaucracies, past practices tend to become increasingly rigid and inflexible. That is inconsistent with how we must act to be successful in a changing environment. In government agencies, we tend to increasingly focus on the minute detail. We become experts at using the microscope.

Imagine what you might find if, instead of always using a microscope, you followed the lead of Mr. Galileo and used that other wonderful instrument to see things in a new way over a longer distance – the telescope.

Use this instrument as a regular part of your personal organizational thinking and action. Instead of always "taking things for granite," spend time deliberately learning how to become an initiator of innovation and a champion of change for the better.

The HR Doctor can help. Try contacting him by e-mail at

Best Wishes,
The HR Doctor

(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him at Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)

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