Framework for success in a changing environment for a public manager

Perry M. Lopez
Construction Manager
City of Clearwater, Florida

As sweeping changes from the state legislators have dictated changes, "business as usual" must be reevaluated. The distrust of government staffers dates back to the early 1900s when corruption and dishonesty prevailed. This attitude, although much improved over the years, still persists.

In these changing times, and in order to change this perception, public servants must become entrepreneurial and willing to take risks. For this phenomenon to occur, and public opinion changed, the public servant must be prepared to change how they conduct business. Steven Cohen and William Eimicke, in the book The Effective Public Manager (2002, p. 11), describe the changes necessary as, "the need to be creative, innovative and entrepreneurial, as well as a lifelong learner. Stability, complacency, and routine will increasingly be replaced by change, new problems and new solutions." The key to this transformation is an active, aggressive effort to overcome negative perceptions with action.

Let us first look at understanding some of the traditional pitfalls of our predecessors. In order to take a good look at how to improve, we must first take a step back and look in the mirror. "The first step in estimating organizational capability is to make a frank assessment of organizational accomplishments. In order to improve performance, it is essential to measure your organization's current level of performance." (Cohen, Eimicke, 2002, p. 216) If this assessment is to be successful, each manager must take a good, hard look at its group and acknowledge the good and the bad. There is no such thing as perfection; not acknowledging failure in order to learn from it does the organization a disservice.

No longer can a manager follow the same pattern that has been a mainstay in the public sector. Too often the public manager measures success by the absence of failure (Cohen, Eimicke, 2002). This type of thinking is what has led to mistrust by the public. What needs to take place is a new thought process. When public managers allow constraints (encountered on a regular basis) to act as an excuse for poor performance, these managers have found a key ingredient towards failure (Cohen, Eimicke, 2002). The public manager must look beyond merely satisfying his/her boss, or appeasing the politicians. Although each of these traits has its own merits, it is not adequate in getting the job done. The manager must be able to understand the needs of the boss as well as the politicians and find a way to satisfy those expectations with sound leadership and entrepreneurial thinking.

Something that has been a mystery to this author is the lack of responsibility taken for mistakes. It seems anytime a mistake is made, fingers are pointing in every direction. "This fear of making decisions is a part of the culture of the public sector that the aggressive public manager must strive to overcome" (Cohen, Eimicke, 2002, p. 16). It is silly to believe that much work can be accomplished without error. Herein lies another reason to strive for a more efficient manner of conducting business. Once efficiency has been implemented and the fear of mistakes is alleviated, the public manager will feel more comfortable in being aggressive and taking risks, for without these two characteristics, the public sector cannot adjust to the changing times in government and will continue to be subjected to the negative public perception. It is important to take personal responsibility for our choices and concentrate on how to correct the error. This will go far in changing perceptions of government workers.

Several other factors must also be considered—most importantly, the human factor. In order to accomplish goals and meet expectations, the employment of quality people becomes the biggest challenge. Unfortunately, the stigma associated with the public sector is a deterrent to the public-minded student. Therefore, changing this perception accomplishes more than getting the job done; it will help in the recruitment of excellent workers. Furthermore, the manager must understand that motivation will become his/her greatest asset in finding, and more importantly keeping, good people.

Understanding that the public manager can be handcuffed by civil service rules that don't allow for strong discipline, it is imperative that the public manager has a thorough understanding of his/her staff. Respect plays a major role in the motivation of subordinates. However, when encountering a staff member that is difficult to motivate, the manager must seek ways not to allow this person to infiltrate, and subsequently, damage the morale and focus of those that are willing to accept the challenges ahead. A thorough knowledge of staff will allow the manager to delegate assignments properly in order to get the most out of each staff member, including those that may not buy into the excitement surrounding a new attitude.

While motivating others, an effective working relationship should evolve. Understanding your staff's work style and preferences is a key ingredient to successful motivation as well as showing respect for them. "Most people appreciate a boss who relates to them as human beings first and as subordinates second. A respect for your staff member's dignity is critical" (Cohen, Eimicke, 2002, p. 87). Solving the puzzle of providing guidance and leadership will enhance any department and start the process of successful and efficient public service.

Bringing a new structure to the organization will require the manager to understand the structure and systems to help simplify the changes. As Cyrus Gibson (1978) indicates, an organization's structure should be a function of three factors: goals and objectives; internal social structure; and external environment. Change is always a difficult endeavor, which is the primary reason most people are so reluctant and resistant to it. Incorporating a system that clarifies the goals and objectives, staff will feel more comfortable with the idea of change and would be more willing to tackle the constraints presented by change.

Internal social structure may be the most difficult of the three factors. Cooperation with other departments is difficult when working in an environment where each manager is very possessive of his/her territory. Here again, the public sector operates in an environment that contributes to its negative perception by the public. We must begin to think outside this box that has existed for decades. In addition, it is imperative to understand, in the public sector, that there will always be less competent internal social structures to deal with. For this reason, in order for turnaround to be successful, the public manager must be aggressive and take risks. "The key to effective management is an active, aggressive, and innovative effort to overcome constraints and obstacles" (Cohen, Eimicke, 2002, p. 28). Dealing with one's brethren has always been and will continue to be a paramount challenge. In these times of change, creativity and entrepreneurial thinking will determine the path that leads to triumph.

As to Gibson's third factor, external environment has created this need for reform. "The sum of these trends has been to cause a crisis in public management. We are not arguing that this crisis is necessarily a bad thing. Within the crisis there are tremendous opportunities to redefine and improve public management" (Cohen, Eimicke, 2002, p. 5). For this author, this revelation is profound and represents the need for the changes discussed in this article to be put into action. Definitive action will silence the critics, increase morale and welcome a new era.

Since working in the public sector has unique challenges, understanding and applying innovative strategies is essential if reform is to occur. A clear mission and clear expectations must be defined in order for a successful plunge into a new era. With clear expectations, the public manager can focus on the task at hand, and in turn, deliver an unmistakable message to staff. Once again motivation plays a role: With a clear understanding of staff and delegating assignments properly, one can expect staff to be successful in accomplishing the mission.

There are several other factors that must be taken into consideration to complete this reform and head towards a new way of dealing with the ever-changing government. Budgeting is a major consideration and, in fact, one of the primary reasons for the need of a new attitude. "The single most effective tool for influencing organizational behavior is the budget. In general, the budget works better as a negative rather than a positive control mechanism" (Cohen, Eimicke, 2002, p. 187). The subject of budgeting is not something this writer is qualified to discuss in detail; however, its importance needs to be mentioned. As Cohen and Eimicke (2002) discuss, public managers must understand the opportunity and obstacles the budget presents. By understanding these key factors, he/she can then use the budget to influence their work.

Other key factors or obstacles, depending on how they are used, are the media, legislative bodies and interest groups. This author has observed that dealing with each of these groups can both benefit and hinder attempts at efficient management. Unfortunately, good news doesn't sell very well; on the contrary, bad news does. "It has been observed that the prevailing media attitude toward movement has shifted from skeptical to cynical" (Carter, 1996; Lee, 1999). This reinforces the need for more efficient public management.

By implementing these suggestions, it is possible to change the public's opinion of government. It will take an effort on the part of the public manager to make wholesale changes in the operation of government. He/she must be aggressive, entrepreneurial and willing to take risks. "Unquestionably, a public sector career can cause you to be branded a bumbling bureaucrat. However, it can also place you within an exciting community of colleagues interested in using the government to promote society's welfare" (Cohen, Eimicke, 2002, p. 269). The conflicts that have presented themselves to us have forced a need to reform. This writer believes we have what it takes; let's show the public that public servants are up to the task.

Perry Lopez can be reached at (727) 462-6126 or


Cohen, S., Eimicke, W. (2002). The Effective Public Manager, Third Edition. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA