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What makes for a successful public-sector workplace?

Wherever we work, employers use a fundamental mission to shape our daily labor. For the private sector, it is profit maximization. For nonprofits, it is service to others. For the public sector, well, that has become increasingly murky. I contend that the purpose of public employment is a stewardship of the common good.

Monte Bute

However, the means by which an organization seeks to achieve those various ends is more important than the goal itself. Means reflect a workplace’s ethos, its character, moral nature, or norms. In other words, an ethos is the oxygen of an organization, the cognitive, sensory, and emotional atmosphere that envelops our daily work — and it may be benign or malignant. 

To paraphrase Tolstoy, all successful workplaces are alike; each unsuccessful workplace is unsuccessful in its own way. Having been in the public sector for 33 years, I will attempt to sketch what makes for a successful public workplace, and what may derail it. I will use as an example my employer, Metropolitan State University.

At a tipping point

While our new president, Ginny Arthur, is a strong advocate of stewardship, our institutional ethos is currently at a tipping point. In 2016, the administration proposed measures to resolve a significant budget shortfall. The faculty union pushed back, rejecting changes to the status quo. Management claimed that these solutions were temporary measures; some faculty saw a Trojan horse, a hidden agenda for an irreversible reduction of compensation. Compromise became elusive.

Consequently, the administration went ahead and made cutbacks that the union did not agree to, adding toxins to the atmosphere. In turn, the faculty’s rampant mistrust of management’s motives is further polluting the institution’s ethos.

The faculty is not exempt from self-scrutiny. While we deserve a just wage for our labors of stewardship, do we have any obligation to shoulder part of a shortfall that was not of our making? Under normal circumstances, the faculty has a right to seek whatever compensation is available. In a financial emergency, does that still hold true?

Distortions abound

Welcome to a hall of mirrors, where distortions abound. Nearly every fact in this workplace drama is contestable: The cause and scope of the budget crisis; the parties responsible for it; the appropriateness of responses to it; the need for faculty to share its burden. Is there a way out of this impasse?

What every organization needs to avoid is an institutional ethos that fosters a constant zero-sum game; rather, what it requires is an ethos where both managers and employees agree that everyone is in this together. However, that also means everyone, from the president to the janitor, is accountable for his or her fair share of the load. If the distribution of that burden is unjust (or perceived as unjust), discontent spreads like a contagion.

That often leads to conflict, something that is too often discouraged. Conflict is essential for the well-being of any institution. The distinction that we fail to make clear enough is between realistic and constructive conflict and unrealistic and destructive conflict. The former actually fosters a positive ethos; the latter is nihilistic and the enemy of all organizations.

A successful public workplace needs both an aspirational mission and a corresponding ethos that encourages both managers and employees to walk the walk. Will Metro State resolve its present discord in a manner that strengthens its long-term heritage of stewardship? Conversely, will ongoing strife push the university into a future of zero-sum hostilities? It could go either way. The onus is upon the leaders and followers of the institution’s various constituencies.         

Monte Bute teaches sociology and social science at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. This article reflects his opinions alone.​

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 01/14/2017 - 09:12 am.

    When a small business has a bad year

    the owner takes the hit. When a public sector business has a bad year they just take more of our tax dollars from somewhere else to make up the shortfall. Show me a lean, well run public sector business.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/16/2017 - 11:22 am.

      Challenge Accepted!

      The Saint Paul Regional Water Utility is well run. Like many municipal water utilities around the country, citizens pay modest rates, and think nothing of the reliable service they get.

      A few years back, deregulation of electric power utilities was the hot new thing. Private industry was going to make things so much better for us. A company called “Enron” was the flavor of the day, and their share price grew and grew. They didn’t tell us that they were manipulating the wholesale supply of power in California. Brownouts became common, and retail rates soared all over the Golden State. But not in Los Angles. Why was LA immune from the chaos?

      LA had it’s own municipally run power utility. The supply of electricity there remained reliable, and at stable rates, specifically because it was a well run public sector business, in your own words.

      More locally, the city of North Saint Paul has had a municipal electric utility for over 100 years. I’ve known numerous No. St. Paul residents over the years, and have patronized businesses there as well. I’ve heard no complaints, and witnessed no problems myself. And that’s not the only municipal utility in Minnesota. East Grand Forks, Winthrop, and Oliva have well run public sector utilities. During the recent election, we were all told how much wiser rural Americans were, and how they have so much common sense. So it seems we should take a look at what the wise citizens of the rural Minnesota town of Arlington are doing right, including owning their own utility.

  2. Submitted by Anita Alexander on 01/14/2017 - 03:03 pm.

    Successful workplace

    The leaders or top management must be willing to set a vision for their agency, communicate the vision and what it looks like. They must require all levels to adhere to policies and procedures mirroring the vision and be willing to deal with those who aren’t in agreement. Making hard decisions, but fair decisions for their agency.

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