Public Service Tip No. 9: Breaking Through Management Hardpan


If you're a gardener, you're probably familiar with the term hardpan, a soil condition where the individual soil grains become cemented together by bonding agents like calcium carbonate, forming a hard, impervious mass. Hardpan often forms a few inches below the surface of the soil. When this happens, the soil doesn't drain, because water can't percolate down through the hard pan and plants dry out and die because their roots can't get to water below the hardpan. Its a tricky gardening problem but it can usually be dealt with by creating drainage holes through the hardpan and backfilling with good quality soil. Public service has its own hardpan problems.

In public service you'll frequently run into what I call "management hardpan," a layer of management a few layers down in the organization that has cemented together into a hard, impervious mass. In soil, the hardpan restricts the flow of water. In the public sector, management hardpan restricts the flow of information.

In most government agencies, the very top layer or two is composed of appointed officials who are there to put the current administration's slant on the agency's operations. The rest of the organization is made up of long term government employees. This is not necessarily a bad thing--it discourages patronage, for example. The appointed officials depend on the permanent management for organizational memory, experience, and domain expertise.

In my experience, the appointed officials and the large body of agency personnel are frequently out of touch. You could bring the appointed officials to a consensus, but that didn't mean that the troops got the word, let alone were convinced of the program's efficacy and were on board. In some cases, this was the typical management problems you'd find in any organization. In many others, though there were active efforts by a few highly placed, long term managers to deliberately divert information and misinform the organization below them.

Why do this? Simple answer: power. The long-term government managers are the survivors. They've been working for the government for dozens of years and have worked their way to the top of their organization and wield considerable influence and control sizable budgets. Their viewpoints are quite parochial. They want the employees in their organization to be beholden to them for information. Moreover, they want their employees to see them as their savior and protector. That's only possible if they're saving them from something. If no real problem is present, its just as convenient to invent one.

I've been told by employees down in the ranks, for example, that their managers "discouraged" them from getting too chummy with me or other appointed officials. Sometimes this discouragement was very effective intimidation. These were the same managers who were shaking my hand, smiling at me, and telling me that they were my biggest supporters. In other cases, I'd talk to some of the IT employees I knew about some rumor or another and find that certain managers were actively promoting the rumors (and even making them up) in their group meetings.

Breaking through the hardpan layer isn't easy. You can try to convert them or you can go around them. The former isn't easy because they have a vested interest that is not aligned with yours (unless by mere coincidence). You have to find a way to align their interests with yours and that might require tools and techniques (like bonuses, raises, demotions, and outright firing) that aren't available to you in the public sector. Going around them is difficult as well because they do employ many of these tools and techniques to ensure that their organizations are aligned with them.

Is there any hope? Many gardeners despair because they think that they must break up the entire hardpan layer to have a successful garden. That's not true. Its only necessary to break through in select spots, where the roots must grow especially deep. The same is true in public service. Select you targets carefully and concentrate your efforts there. Work hard to establish relationships with those managers and find creative ways to align their interests with yours. In other areas, you may have to find a way to remove the hardpan and backfill. You'll also find some areas of the garden where there is no hardpan and those agencies present great targets of opportunity which can be exploited.