The Manager and the New Public Service

Published in Canadian Public Administration, Vol.38 No.4 (Winter, 1995).




Much has been written about the "re-engineered" public sector and the concept of a flatter more entrepreneurial organization with a creative, customer-driven self-directed workforce. This transition is affecting all aspects of operations, including long-standing assumptions of loyalty and obligation in the employee-employer relationship. The employees' side of the shift to this new workplace has received lots of attention. Little has been said, however, about the manager in the new arrangement.

Managers are expected to lead the transition to the new style of organization. They have to announce the changes, merge or disband units and terminate staff, and then encourage and coach the "survivors" to become the new self-managed entrepreneurial employees.

Some managers have difficulty telling the people in their units about the transition to the new organization. Many are asked to do something they've never had to do before and which was not part of the deal they thought they signed up for when they were promoted. Their own jobs have changed, but they're not sure what the terms of the new agreement are ‹ what they do know is that some of it isn't much fun, and many are not very good at it. Here's a typical example from the trenches:

The director of a human resources unit in a large organization in the midst of a confusing and painful downsizing exercise calls his staff together for a meeting. The unit's rumour mill has been working overtime but no real figures have surfaced as yet. The group is apprehensive ‹ for the last 6 months every invitation to a meeting has been greeted as if it is THE meeting. The director's just come back from a senior management meeting where they were briefed about the new lean and keen public service and how their people will be free to grow in this open, entrepreneurial and creative environment. He's not really comfortable about all this so to try to keep it up-beat he opens the meeting with a lame joke. All he gets is a bit of nervous laughter. He wants to get right to the point so he says something like:

"You all know we're going through quite a change. We've lost about one-third of our budget and it's forced us to redesign our whole organization: in this unit we can't afford to just sit around and let the work come to us any more. We've got to show the rest of this outfit what we can do for them and prove that we really are worth keeping around. Let me tell you what kind of people this unit will need in the new organization. We need people who are flexible and adaptable, self-starters who recognize what needs doing and just do it. We need go-getters and hustlers, people who are out there marketing our services to the rest of the organization. Everyone has to get behind this, and each of you just better hope you have what it takes!"

Around the room the body language says it all: they shift nervously in their chairs, their shoulders slump, and across their faces is the bleak message, "I'm toast!"

The director sees this, and wonders to himself, "What's going on? They've gone flat! That's not what they're supposed to do. They're supposed to be all pumped up ‹ they're free now and ready to grow and be creative about their work. What happened?" He has to keep a good face on it so he blunders on, and the meeting eventually comes to a merciful end. As he walks back to his office he remembers his own inner reaction in the senior management session when his boss said much the same to the group ‹ he had a moment of panic, followed by the question, "How the hell am I ever going to do that?" And he wondered how his boss felt when she heard the same message from the next level up: probably much the same.

This scenario describes the tip of a very complex iceberg of change taking place in organizations across the country ‹ the "announcement" is only a small part of the action. This article will highlight a range of issues facing managers in the transition to a very different public service.

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