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National Council of

Social Security Management Associations

Blast from the Past

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Article originally printed in Mass Media, February 1998.

Written by Dave Sylte, Marion, IN


Where are we going and how will we know when we get there?


That old American sage Yogi Berra once observed, “You need to know where you’re going or you could end up some place else.” This little bit of wisdom could describe the state of affairs here at the Social Security Administration. We know that times are changing around us, but we’re not sure exactly how and if there is a real plan for getting there. We continually look around for “programmatic soft spots,” and we try to guess which one will be the next one for focus by a GAO report or a Congressional subcommittee telling us to fix it. In management theory, this is called “crisis management,” and it is a case study of how not to get things done.


There is a revolution going on in the American workplace which most experts say is the most significant change since the advent of the Industrial Revolution a century ago. On the surface it looks a lot like change driven by a lot of buzzwords like “quality,” “teams,” “process improvement,” “customer focus,” “mission,” “vision,” “empowerment,” “delayering,” “reengineering,” and “the learning organization.” However, these are not just buzzwords; they are related elements in a cultural change that modifies how we get things done in the workplace, both in the private in public sector. The ultimate goal is a workplace that makes a little more sense to everyone involved, from the worker to the customer.


This is the ultimate message of the National Performance Review (NPR), a message that was drafted by career public servants, not some detached outside consultants. The message was simple. The NPR called for “a government that works better and costs less.” Unfortunately, that message has been distorted by many different factors. But then we in the government aren’t any different from the private sector. That’s why the management sections of book stores are now filled with titles on how to mess things up in moving to the new work culture. That’s why The Dilbert Principle has sat near the top of the nonfiction best seller list for many weeks. It’s why Dilbert cartoon strips get shared around in many offices. We’ve been there, done that.


What are some of the things we are doing at SSA which really don’t fit in terms of moving to the new work culture? First, using expanded management spans of control as a numeric target rather than the natural result of the empowerment of front line workers is really turning the whole process on its head. It’s using the old style of management-by-objectives (MBO) to try to make sense of the new work culture.


Secondly, when you create new management “non-supervisory” jobs, or relabel old management jobs without changing the work process, you have simply put old wine in new bottles. Moreover, you have made real change even more difficult by creating a sense of cynicism among the persons upon whom you depend to bring about change. That’s when people start talking about the management “flavor of the month,” and saying things like “I’ll believe it when I see it,” or “This too will pass.”


You build more cynicism into the process when you are selective in listening to what the customer, the general public, wants. Cranking resources into the 800 number is a laudable goal, but not at the expense of completing backlogged paperwork in PSCs or answering local phone lines.


What can we do to move SSA just a little closer to the new work culture?


Here are a few ideas:


We must be a proactive agency, not a reactive one. People on the front lines have always been the first to tell us where programmatic soft spots exist. Let’s listen to their feedback and utilize their solutions before an area blows up in our faces.


We must find levels of service that surprise and delight the public so we can reverse the distrust that much of the public has about the government. Community-based service is where it starts.


We must revise our management information systems so they measure all the things we do that really matter to the public, not just those that are easiest to measure or those that are only important to us in the agency.


We must understand that changing the government work culture will require a solid commitment of time and resources. It will take years to accomplish this, just as it has with other organizations.


Creation of a team based work environment is not the goal of the new work culture. It is only a means to the ultimate goal, which is to improve service to the public.


We must be candid about what doesn’t work. This means refraining from shooting messengers who bear bad news or offer dissenting viewpoints. We also should accept the fact that a pilot may not work out the way we expected.


Personal skills training should have as many spots on FO training calendars as sessions on topics like systems upgrades.


We must have appraisal and award systems that support the new work culture rather than tearing it apart.


So, where are we headed and how will we know when we get there? Vice President Al Gore summed it up well when he said, “We are determined to move from an industrial age government, from a government preoccupied with sustaining itself to a government clearly focused on serving the people.” Yogi Berra couldn’t have said it better.


Compiled and edited by Mike McHugh

Chicago Region

Wrong password.