Public Service Tip No. 1: Process Is More Important Than Results


With the rash of new Governors, there's bound to be a new crop of state CIOs as well.  Given that, and my recent resignation, I will, from time to time, offer a tip or two on things I learned in the public sector in hopes of sharing my experience with those contemplating such a move.  Public service tip no.1 is "Process Is More Important Than Results."

I had lunch with Rich North, who works in the Legislative Research and General Counsel's office right before Thanksgiving.  At one point during the lunch, he said something to me that left me incredulous: "remember, process is more important than results."  Maybe I misunderstood him, but nevertheless his words were full of wisdom.  The bad news is that even as late as the final week of my career in state government, I found that statement to be ludicrous.  The good news is that even as late as the final week of my career in state government, I found that statement to be ludicrous.  When you start to believe that, the borg has won.

Now, I'm all for process.  I preach it all the time.  Moreover, I've never knowingly violated an established process.  Still, the thought that process is paramount would strike any private sector mind as folly.   After all, even a nuclear submarine has a "battle short" switch.  Nevertheless, if you're going to have a successful career in government, you have to learn to accept the fact that results don't matter. 

Here's the deal: to achieve results, you've got to do something.  If you do something, you'll make mistakes.  Mistakes are, by definition, a process violation.  So the only way to reverence process at all costs is to do nothing or, at the very least, proceed with the utmost caution.  You've probably wondered why government service is so slow.  This is the reason why: people are being very careful.  They have to be, because any misstep can be deadly. 

Now, they don't start out that way.  Most people enter government service ready to change the world.   State employees are, for the most part, caring people who want to do right by the citizen.   The problem is that the longer you are in public service, the more you have of what a friend of mine refers to as "end of leash experiences."  You have enough of those and you quickly realize that to avoid them, you'd better stop running and look over your shoulder all the time.   I had a few end of leash experiences and it quickly got to me.  One of the reasons I decided it was time to step down is that I was no longer willing to jump into the fray.  I was watching my back and wondering how the borg would react to nearly everything I did.   I was more worried about making mistakes than getting something done. 

So, if you're going to have a long, successful career in public service, remember: don't worry about getting results; worry about the process.  You'll go home every night happy and retire after you've put in your 20 years with nary a scratch. People will congratulate you on being a good "administrator."   Personally, I can't feel good about cashing my paycheck unless I'm getting results and I'm proud to say that hasn't changed.