Unlike the private sector, government is unable to change failing policies

Fiscal crises are never about income. Fiscal crises are always about poor management.

As our state faces its most current fiscal crisis, I urge our representatives to reflect on the crises we faced in the recent past. I recall three in which I, as middle management at the Department of Health and Human Services, was responsible for implementing cuts handed down by the administration and endorsed by the Legislature.

They came with the same rhetoric I hear today. “The most vulnerable will be protected from harm as we are forced to make sacrifices,” is one of the more onerous I endured as I cut resources from children and the poor. The rhetoric is always the same, regardless of who is in power or which level of government is feeling the pinch.

Occasionally, the people rise and say enough. Legislators must do a better job protecting the purse; if they don’t, we the people will curtail spending through one mechanism or another. Of course, bureaucrats and politicians respond with pleas for patience or outright threats of loss of services like public safety or quality education. The people back off, more money is found and the status quo resumes until the next crisis, when the pattern is repeated.

We are there again.

The public sector is missing the safeguard that stalls this pattern in the private sector. In the mid-1980s, for example, some corporations, when their boards of directors began to confront management, were found to have as many as 10,000 employees that managers could not connect to corporate goals. Staying focused in large organizations requires a working team, not just a manager who says what the board of directors wants to hear.

While in middle management at DHHS, we spent much time setting goals and attempting to apply good management practices to achieve them. We engaged staff at all levels in this process, knowing the things we wanted to do could only be done when the organization functioned as a team.

We clarified what we were doing, despite the difficulty of articulating ideas like “enhancing the self-esteem of pregnant and parenting teens in order to lessen the risk of their abusing their children,” or “placing children with caretakers more able to put the children’s needs above their own.”

What we were unable to do was the second phase of basic management: a realignment of resources after some reasonable period of time and assessment.

In the public sector, there is little opportunity for people within the bureaucracy – and no incentive for folks in charge of the purse strings – to apply such management. So the organization hobbles along in first gear, unable to shift and realize its potential. Instead, resources are applied and removed without connection to outcomes/goals.

Those team members who care about the quality of their work (which in my experience is the vast majority of public servants) implement program cuts without being able to look realistically at the impact on goals.

The team leader in the public sector operates in a kind of fantasyland, or reads by what my mother would call “gaslight.” Although it will not be evident to the casual observer, the team is undermined and the function of the organization is diminished.

The Legislature is the board of directors of our organization. It has opportunity and responsibility to acknowledge and interrupt the pattern. At some point, organizations lose connectedness to their goals and their employees slowly disengage, taking a paycheck without real investment in the outcome of their work. Amazingly, in some components of government, maybe many, employees hang in there, no matter how far out of touch with goals the managers and policymakers become.

But when resources are added or diminished without clear connection to goals, the organization suffers. When this happens repeatedly over decades, people lose respect for those who are supposed to serve them. Everyone suffers.

I believe it is the responsibility of the Legislature to ensure state government works as a team.

This can only happen when resources are tied to goals, and when resources are diminished, those goals are modified to reflect lesser resources. Anything less is poor management, applied, incidentally, by good, caring, well-intentioned people at every level of government.

James Tierney, a social worker and former DHHS manager, lives in Auburn.