If you want to see what can go wrong with government reform, look at this editorial cartoon.
Notice first the cartoonist’s point of view: that it is condescending and counterproductive for “drive-by” experts to criticize hard-working government employees (in this case, teachers) for their performance.
Then see the teacher’s point of view: She cannot be held responsible if she has to deal with children who are homeless, watching TV around the clock, provided no discipline, pregnant, living in single-family homes, and on and on. In other words, while drive-by experts blame her for education’s shortcomings, she blames the students.
When reform efforts get to this point—all sides dug in, minds shut tight, blame hurled in all directions—you can close up shop. Reform isn’t going to happen.
Is there another way? There is, but it has to be done right from the start. In fact, before the word “reform” is ever uttered. Here are three first steps.
First, you must promise never to blame employees for poor performance. This is critical because you cannot change an organization without the support of those who work in it. In this sense, the cartoonist was right: It is counterproductive to blame the employees.
Second, employees must stop blaming others. Just as it’s a mistake for education reformers to blame teachers, it is wrong for teachers to blame their students for poor performance—or government workers at any level to blame citizens when things don’t work right.
Third, once the blame game has ceased, everyone must work side by side to understand where the organization is falling short, why, and what can be done to turn things around.
This sounds so simple, there must be a catch, right? Yes, and it’s a big one. You have to work against political culture, which is to point the finger at others. Reporters, city councils, and legislative oversight committees will want to know who was responsible when mistakes were made or deadlines missed. If you genuinely want things to work better, there’s only one response: I am responsible. Blame me.
This takes courage in a political environment, but it’s the only way you can move to the second step, where you persuade employees to stop blaming others. If you have their backs, you can say, they must have the citizens’ backs. Always.
And once you reach that understanding and the blame wars have quieted, you can move to step three, where you work as partners. But even then, you must keep working on trust.
One of the earliest trust issues will be about measurements. If you’re going to fix a broken system, you have to agree on ways of measuring brokenness and gauging progress. But once you start measuring things, you’ll raise again the fear of blame. So you have to make another pact: The measurements will be used only for pinpointing problems and measuring progress, not for punishments or rewards.
This requires that you work against instinct, which is to reward your best performers and punish the slackers. But if you go down that road, it will encourage the slackers to resume the blame wars and, in no time, you’ll be back to . . . well, what you see in the cartoon.
In addition to courage, this approach requires faith that the vast majority of people want to do good work and only a small minority do not. If you can enlist the majority in changes that will bring them pride and accomplishment, the organization will make great strides. And, over time, you can weed out the minority.
But nothing will happen until you stop the blame.
A version of this posting appeared on the Governing website.
Illustration by E Theroit licensed under Creative Commons.
This is part of a series of brief postings called Rules for Reformers. For an introduction to the series, please click here.