'It's time to turn the organization charts upside down'
- By Walter R. Houser
- Jan 22, 1996
When budgets are tight, it's hard to find the resources needed
to innovate. But these days, budgets are getting so tight that many agencies no longer can
assume that funds will be there to continue doing business as usual.
Of course, agencies facing elimination have even tougher choices. Can they afford to
innovate when their existence is in question?
Besieged by cutbacks, furloughs and reductions in force, many federal employees are
becoming too discouraged to take the risks associated with innovation. Our rising stress
saps our courage, creativity and willingness to cooperate. Instead of venturing out into
the unknown, we are inclined to hunker down and wait for the unknown to descend upon us.
But the question is not whether the agency can afford to innovate. Rather, can the
agency afford not to? Taxpayers are restive; Congress and the Clinton administration have
promised to make changes. Change is coming; our choice may be whether we change before
others impose change upon us.
So where lies the opportunity in this crisis? Ask our customers. They're paying for
government services and many have been complaining about what they get for their taxes. It
won't be easy to sift through their angry, often contradictory expectations, but it is no
less necessary that we do it. Otherwise, the public may decide that no program is better
than the program they are paying for.
In a democracy, the programs that survive are the ones with the strongest political
support. Even agencies with large, powerful constituencies will get only lukewarm
political support if their goals are obsolete and their methods are antiquated and
But, you say, we are a regulatory agency, and "our customers hate us." Then
it's past time to change this relationship. For example, most regulated companies
recognize that reasonable regulations fairly administered provide a level playing field.
Although short-term expedients can be seductive, regulations are intended to provide for
the long-term welfare of the public.
If unscrupulous companies take shortcuts that jeopardize the public good, those less
willing to take such actions may reluctantly do so anyway, fearing loss of revenues in a
cost-conscious marketplace. Responsible businesses have a strong incentive to work with
regulatory agencies in developing and implementing regulations.
Every agency has customers, and we, in the words of business guru Tom Peters, must
"get close to our customers." Loyal customers show their loyalty through their
continued patronage. They also show their loyalty to and through their elected
Who in your agency knows the customers best? The case workers, the meat inspectors, the
park rangers and the other first-line employees who typically are low on the bureaucratic
food chain. Peters admonishes management "to treat employees like you'd like your
employees to treat your customers." In other words, one key to pleasing the customer
is to treat employees with respect and understanding.
Unfortunately, most agencies see themselves as hierarchies. Pyramidal in design,
hierarchies have a built-in bias favoring those with the least customer contact. The
higher up in the hierarchy you rise, the more "valuable" you are and the more
you are paid. Those who deliver the services to the customer aspire to rise above their
The higher up in the organization, the greater the salary, the nicer the office, the
larger the "span of control," and the more fulsome the praise from aspiring
employees below. "Success" is rewarded with additional distance from the
customer. And the customers quickly get the implicit message that they are below the
It's time to turn the organization charts upside down. The bottom of the pyramid should
go to the top; the layers of managers need to see themselves as servants to those who
serve. Those not having direct business with customers, from supervisor to agency head,
need to understand that they are non-productive overhead. Managers need to see that their
role is to enable the performance of the truly productive employees, those who deliver
goods and services to customers.
Perks should go to employees who provide outstanding customer service, as measured by
customers and colleagues as well as by managers. Secretaries, technical staffs and
administrative employees should support the productive employees, rather than cater to the
boss. Management compensation should reflect the degree to which the productive employees
believe they are supported, rather than the reverse. Customer focus groups should be as
frequent as staff meetings.
These are indeed radical ideas to contemplate. These are extreme measures suitable only
for desperate organizations fighting for their survival. But the old ways no longer seem
to be working, and time is running out.
Walter R. Houser is responsible for information resources management and policy at a
major federal agency .