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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.           Vol. 32, No. 8 * May 1, 2000

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The Border Patrol

There is an article about the “border patrol.” No, not the federal law enforcement agency. This border patrol affects many more people. It patrols the borders of convention and status quo and reduces the spirit of innovation. This border patrol is not user friendly and needs to be downsized or eliminated from the thinking and behavior of public employees.

The HR Doctor just returned from attending and speaking at a conference in the United Kingdom. A lot of the discussion by British local government chief personnel officers centered on Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “best value” initiative. This is a national government mandate that all UK government agencies benchmark their practices and develop ways to improve service and reduce waste. This might happen through improved internal efficiency or reorganization but it may also come by outsourcing, privatizing or simply eliminating services. Sound familiar?

It should, because by different names, the UK’s best value initiative is something which has occupied the attention of local government leaders in the United States for several years. One important difference, however – one which was noticed and commented on throughout the conference was the fact that this was a national government mandate and local governments had no choice but to comply.

The unwritten British constitution lacks a 10th Amendment and a truly federal system. We, too, suffer from federal mandates often unfunded, but clearly not to the same degree that concerned my British friends and colleagues.

The tremendous irony here is that to measure best value results, the national government will be unleashing a horde of auditors, monitors and inspectors. Such people live in a world of history. That is, they look back at what occurred already and try to count it, sort it and measure it. What ends up happening is that in the name of monitoring and “compliance,” the real outcome can be, as one British colleague put it, “... killing the spirit of innovation.” This is an important lesson for everyone in local government and especially for elected or appointed officials.

Certainly there must be accountability, more so when public funds and government authority is involved than in most private industry settings. Certainly we must look for benchmarks and mechanisms to judge how we are doing as an individual employee and as an agency. Indeed, the HR Doctor has written several articles supporting the value of evaluation.

The reality in government, however, is that the risk of a loss of accountability and wasted effort when programs are unrestrained may be outweighed by an overzealous insistence that everything be counted and that all efforts at innovation must be accompanied by reams of reports and certifications.

There must be a balance.

HR professionals are often in the best position in the organization to see the need for this balance. The stifling of innovation leads to a withdrawal from engagement by employees. It produces a tendency to avoid any change to the status quo and to retreat behind the safety of existing rules and policies. After all, these have already been audited. In fact, the rules may be safe but they will not help an agency meet new challenges. To be nimble in a changing world, every agency must create an environment for employees in which it is safe to both constructively challenge the status quo, and fail.

Patrolling the borders of current thinking and policies to keep them safe from any change is a guarantee that these policies and programs will ultimately fail.

The best auditors are those who balance a search for accountability with a clear understanding of the compelling role of innovation. Looked at another way, new programs and positive change can be regarded as job security for auditors because their work becomes more interesting and more valued by others. Isn’t that a combination that all employees and elected officials want in their careers?

The HR Doctor wishes you all the best. Feel free to visit the “office” at


Phil Rosenberg,
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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