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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.           Vol. 32, No. 10 * May 29, 2000

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Graveyard of Lost Words

Public administration, like its private business cousin, is subject to fads and fancies. It often takes only one presentation at the general session of some conference to introduce a phrase that cities or counties pick up on and wish to import to the local jurisdiction.

This conference presentation may be made by a well-credentialed guru of management magic and may often be accompanied by a book – a book with some title such as “What Color are the Seven Habits of Effective One-Minute Managers?”

Well, fast forward six months or so and the next thing we know is that one particular fad has spread like an epidemic to the point where some administrators think about calling the Center for Disease Control for assistance.

Unfortunately, the fads come and go on a rather regular schedule similar to that found in the local mass transit system. They leave behind a graveyard of lost words. Confused managers can be seen roaming aimlessly through offices clutching their legal pads, wondering which approach they should be taking and which words to use.

What happened to “total quality management,” “zero base budgeting,” “management by objectives” and “management by walking around”? These words and approaches were once seized upon by elected officials and appointed managers, but what has happened to them? They have moved from the board chambers and conference rooms to the lecture halls of history classes. They joined words such as “millennium,” “empower,” and “wordsmith,” which are thankfully consigned to a retirement home for wayward phrases.

However, all of the fads contain some binding ties in terms of underlying values to which every manager and elected officials should pay serious attention. One of these is the importance of perspective.

A government official who uses only a microscope and not a telescope is going to miss very important information and will risk policy failure. The importance of stepping back and viewing a problem or an opportunity from a high altitude is essential. Note that the HR Doctor deliberately avoided the phrase “view from 40,000 feet.” (The importance of perspective has been reviewed in more detail in the HR Doctor’s July 1997 column headlined: “Decision Vision.”)

A second common lesson is to allow people throughout the organization to feel free to make constructive suggestions and to bring innovative ideas forward.

This is not the practice of many managers who crave personal attention and recognition, even if it means stepping over the bodies of co-workers. An open organization in which information is shared by managers is the spawning ground for continued improvement and self examination. A manager (and for that matter a county government), who is not afraid to take a critical but constructive look at his/her own practices and to invite ideas for improvement, will serve the public interest far better than a closed, information-hoarding person or agency.

The irony here should not go unnoticed – when it comes to the sharing of information, casting information on the waters brings positive returns manyfold.

The same thing is true of another valued concept underlying the fads. Recognition, praise and the simple act of saying “thank you” makes for a better workforce and a more productive organization. It is also a prime ingredient in creating a compelling place to work or, from the standpoint of an applicant in a tight labor market, a compelling place to want to apply.

Note that none of these fundamental principles relates to any particular computer application of the moment, piece of equipment, or facility. Yet, all of them are the building blocks upon which a strong agency can apply new technologies and tools mixed well with positive attitudes of customer service, respect, and equity. Those are words that will not, we hope, ever leave the vocabulary of a modern manager. Perhaps this will be the subject of a future conference presentation – even by the HR Doctor.

Best wishes and don’t forget to visit 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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