Have You Noticed a Slower Pace in Public Sector Work? Have You Wondered Why?

Realities of the government world are part of the reason. But maybe much of the difference from the private sector comes down to culture and attitudes.

We’ve all heard the lament: In the public sector it’s hard to get things done. There’s too much red tape. Too many procedures. Every decision takes multiple reviews.

But why is that? Does it have to be that way? Moving from some private-sector businesses to a public agency can bring on culture shock. I experienced that when I transitioned from an advertising agency to a regulated electric utility, an industry that shares the public sector’s reputation for being stodgy and bureaucratic.

There are some logical reasons why in the public sector the wheels grind slowly. Entities like cities, counties and water utilities are in the public eye. By law, they have to be accountable. Public funds have to be watched carefully, expended judiciously. People can get crucified in the media for making honest mistakes. It’s no wonder they’re cautious and move slowly.

A question of culture?

But in my experience, at least a fair share of the difference between the private and public sectors comes down to basic culture, to attitudes toward work, whether on behalf of paying customers or internal customers — which is to say, co-workers.

In the advertising world, when hiring, we looked for people with what we called “agency genes.” That meant people who innately understood that we were in a service business — that clients’ desires were our commands.

We used expressions like, “The difficult we can do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.” We looked at high-profile, short-turnaround projects as chances to amaze the client by “riding the motorcycle through the flaming hoop.”

I recall one occasion when an art director lamented a harsh client-imposed deadline on a project: “That’s going to be a problem.” His boss replied, “It’s not a problem. It’s a fact.”

Never say “no”

Given that mentality, we went above and beyond on our teams to help each other. When someone came with a request, the word “no” was unacceptable. The operative word was “how?” The job had to get done. If that meant staying late, or stepping on the figurative gas pedal, or calling in outside help, then so be it.

Before I joined the ad agency, I had been a newspaper reporter and editor, and there the culture and basic assumptions were similar. Then after a combined 17 years in those environments I joined the power company as a public affairs representative.

I recall the first time I asked someone from another department for assistance. An alderman had asked me for information to share with his constituents about heating assistance in winter. I called consumer affairs and asked a staffer if he could pull some materials together.

He replied, “I’m kind of busy. I’ll get to it when I can.”

And I was stunned. I wanted to say, “Sorry. Wrong answer!” I should have gone down to his department and gathered the materials myself. Instead I waited. Two weeks later the items hit my inbox. A similar request at the ad agency would have been fulfilled within the hour.

Breaking habits

Of course not every request I ever made to a colleague was treated so cavalierly. I wasn’t the only person in the company with a service mentality, with “agency genes.” But on the whole the difference in responsiveness between the utility and the ad agency was striking.

In a way it was also understandable. After all, the utility was a monopoly. No competitor was sitting by, watching, waiting for a stumble and a chance to steal a client. Why should there be any sense of urgency? In the agency world the threat of competition, the consequence of failure, was always top-of-mind.

So is it possible for a public agency to change to a passionately attentive service culture? Within the necessary strictures I mentioned early on, I believe it is. It would take a leader able to convey the intrinsic satisfaction that goes with prompt and truly excellent service.

From my ad agency years, I can tell you there’s intense pride in doing the near-impossible on a ridiculous timeline. Or to say it differently, it feels great, every now and then, to ride that motorcycle through the flaming hoop, or at least to know that you can if you need to.  


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