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Core Services — Part 2

November 20, 2012

Last week, a professional colleague who leads a neighboring agency shared with me his leadership philosophy, which emphasizes personal ownership. “I want it to be said that under my leadership everyone in the organization proudly and confidently answers the question, ‘Whose agency is this?’ by pointing at their chests and responding, ‘Mine!.’”

I’m not ashamed to say this makes me uncomfortable. I have been a proud public servant for most of my adult life. I don’t think my agency exists or operate for my welfare or anyone who works with me. Our first, last and only purpose is serving the public. Our citizens own the organization. We have the privilege to serve them.

Clearly, ownership has its place. People with a sense of purpose tend to perform and prosper. Some may see little difference between having a sense of ownership in an organization and taking personal ownership of its purpose and mission. I can think of few distinctions more important for a leader to emphasize though.

For starters, the public is increasingly aware they have choices. Choices about what to fund. Choices about what’s most important. And choices about whether to live, work or employ others in our community or pursue their dreams elsewhere.

Has a lack of clarity about and lack of commitment to public service apart from public employment has become more the norm than the exception?

Leadership expert Barbara Kellerman seems to think so. In her recent book, The End of Leadership, she writes

There is less respect for authority across the board–in government and business, in the academy and in the professions, even in religion. Power and influence have continued to devolve from the top down–those at the top having less power and influence; those in the middle and at the bottom having more. For their part, followers, ordinary people, have an expanded sense of entitlement–demanding more and giving less.

Kellerman notes the concurrent erosion of faith in our governing institutions, both public and private. Laying all the blame for such decline at the feet of our leaders would be a mistake. Similarly, it defies reason to assume leadership alone can resolve the problems that led us to this point.

When public servants become unhinged from the purpose and ethos of public service, the sense of entitlement and resulting focus on individual and group empowerment can become overwhelming.

None of this is to say public servants who put their own interests first fail to deliver quality public services. For the most part they do, often for the very reason that it is in their own interests to do so. Good government and a sense of community demand more than competent service though. Efficiency and accountability matter too.

Public servants’ sense of ownership should attach to the work and its value to others. Not just in terms of the pay and benefits they receive for doing it, but for its importance to those they serve. This cannot be measured in purely monetary terms. That said, cost matters.

If public service is something worth owning, it should strive to be the art and science of delivering priceless results for people at the lowest possible cost.

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