“That’s the way we have been doing it for the last 60 years, and that’s the way we are going to continue to do it,” seems to be the pervasive attitude one encounters when one has to deal with a government agency be it securing a permit or getting a license.
True, there are exceptions to the rule as there are wonderful people who serve us, but time and time again taxpayers have come away from some governmental agency dismayed and frustrated. One local writer has even put a face to this attitude and called him “Wendell.” And while this attitude is not exclusive to government, it just seems that it is more pervasive in government than in the private sector.
To a large degree this is because there is the dual protection system in the public sector called civil service and collective bargaining. Some department directors and division heads in the past have bemoaned the fact that the system makes it difficult to get rid of nonproductive employees or move them from one job to another. As a result, employees can dig in their heels and refuse to change the way they have been doing their job.
Again, that is not to say that all public employees refuse to change, in fact, if you talk to many of the employees on the line they would like to do a better job or find ways they can do their job faster and more efficiently. It is the system itself that prevents many of these eager and hardworking employees from changing the way they do things in government.
So is the solution just fire them all? NO, but it will take a willingness on the part of all players to make the change. This includes bureaucrats from within government, public employee unions, as well as individual employees. One might ask why should public employee unions, or for that matter their members, be willing to talk about, not to mention actually undertake, change in the way government services the public?
Well, the handwriting is on the wall – unless the way government delivers services to the public is changed, there won’t be enough resources to sustain the current way services are provided. In an environment where the economy is struggling and taxpayers are already beset with one of the highest per capita tax burdens in the nation, it is doubtful that taxpayers or the economy as a whole can be asked to cough up another dollar. Therefore, whoever is elected both in the gubernatorial election and in the legislative races, the choices are few and simple. Either slash and burn, laying off thousands of public workers, or transition workers into an efficient and responsive workforce making the provision of public services more efficient and productive.
Stabilizing the number of public employees on the payroll and whittling the number of employees by attrition has to happen simultaneously. No, it does not mean doing more work with fewer people. It means taking advantage of technology and partnering with others to get the same job done with fewer people and hopefully at less expense.
It means that departments have to think differently. Probably the worst sin committed by government agencies today is that they do not communicate with one another. Despite the fact that cabinet heads through the ages have met on a regular basis, it does not mean that the same sort of communication takes place at lower levels within government. There are numerous examples of the lack of communication between various public agencies which in the end costs taxpayers millions of dollars – the most recent being the building of the state’s “fishing village” where the folks at the transportation department should have been talking with the folks at the health department.
Finally, each and every public employee needs to break out of the “it’s not my job” syndrome which seems to have been perpetuated by the civil service mind-set and exacerbated by collective bargaining. The “it’s not in my job description” attitude prevents workers from realizing their full potential, but think about it, if the worker never does more than what the job description dictates, his or her supervisor will never know what that employee is able to do.
Reform of state government will not be easy. No doubt the public employee unions will take a resistance position to prove to the members that they are protecting their rights and jobs, but in the long run that position may be the very thing that jeopardizes public employees. For there is one thing that is certain, maintaining the status quo can only lead to a severe crisis that will in turn have a negative impact on public employees.