Public Service Tip No. 5: Avoid the 'L' Word


This story is part of a ongoing series of tips and advice for private sector people who might be considering a stint in public service. See the feature page for an index to the complete set.

This InfoWeek story is about state budget shortfalls and what that means to IT managers in the private sector. The article says that tight budgets mean that public sector IT directors face the same tough decisions that their private sector peers do. That's not true: they face worse choices. To understand why, you have to understand a fundamental principal of public management: sacrifice anything before you manage the size of your workforce.

Time and time again, I saw legislators and executive branch management clutch at any straw they could to avoid the "L" word: layoffs. Part of that is because of the rules surrounding how you can lay people off. You have to let the people with the least seniority go first---and those are typically the people you hired most recently for your newest pet projects, with the best training, and who are making significant contributions. The other part is just general disdain for the idea of workforce management. I've often said that the public sector is 20 years behind the trends in the private sector in workforce issues and this is just an example of that. My private sector views toward workforce management were some of what made my tenure at the State so rocky.

So, what does this mean to IT? Anyone who's tried to make budget cuts will tell you that its very difficult to make significant budget reductions without reducing the size of your workforce since almost all of your expenditures (outside federal pass-throughs like Medicaid) are on people. When you try, you end up cutting all capital investment, all new projects, any investment, and just hunkering down to wait out the storm. IT capital budgets happen to be one of the largest buckets of General Fund money available and so they make a tempting target. Desktops won't be upgraded, new software won't be purchased, and LANs will languish.

One of the best arguments you can make for desktop management to a CFO is that it evens out the cash flow for a pretty expensive item in the IT budget: employee desktops. That wasn't a popular argument at the State because what it meant to a State manager was that you were taking the float out of their budget. Lots of IT equipment gets bought at the end of the year after the program manager is sure that there's extra money. Evening out that cash flow would mean that there was that much less money to play with in tough times and (heaven forfend) someone might have to mention the "L" word.

Some might misunderstand me and assume that I'm arguing for a scenario where employees are sacrified to save any IT project. That is not the case. I'm arguing that good managers, whether they be in the public sector or the private, should ask "what's in the best interest of the citizen (or my shareholders)?" In my experience, that question is not ask. The question is always "what will help us avoid having to layoff employees?"

I seem to be out of step with the vast majority of public sector managers, but I believed that my first duty was to the citizens. I remember one meeting when the budget crisis first started up. I innocently raised my hand and suggested to a group of government leaders who were discussing the problem that this wasn't such a dire circumstance: we had 22,000 employees and the entire problem could be solved by laying off 200 of them. I was adament that any organization with 22,000 employees could probably find 200 who weren't making a significant contribution. I would have drawn less attention farting in church. I was told that every employee was making significant contribution and that they would all be missed. No one could spare even one. What's more, I was warned that such talk could get me in real trouble. Turns out they were right on at least one count.