I just finished one of the most difficult tasks a manager can perform – making preliminary decisions on budget cuts for next year. This is a job which is difficult in any line of work, and more so in government for several reasons.
For one thing, there’s an expectation that government is stable and long-term in its operations and its employment. It has to be. Despite the situation with the economy at large, water and electricity have to keep flowing, streets and parks need to be repaired and cleaned, 911 calls answered, cops and firefighters dispatched. Most of this work is at the very base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – safety and security. The people who perform these jobs for the public expect to have security in their jobs and the tools they use.
Yet I’ve found most government workers are motivated not by job security or money, but by pride. They – we – are proud of the work they do, and proud to be meeting the most basic needs of the people of our communities. I’ve given employees raises and promotions, but, again and again, I’ve watched their motivations inspired not by more money, but with a kind word or e-mail of appreciation, or being recognized in front of their peers for doing a good job.
Certainly the legal machinery surrounding government – or, really, nowadays, work in any large corporation or bureaucracy – reinforces job security. Civil service regulations, unions, personnel rules, and other legal protections all reinforce the expectation that many jobs in government are “permanent”.
Making budget decisions is hard – we talk in terms of “cutting positions” or “abrogation” or other fancy words. But I know the first name of (almost) every employee in my 200+ person department, and hundreds of others in City government as well. It is hard to separate the name or reality of “services cuts” from the people who do the work and are directly affected.
Almost as difficult is making the decisions about cutting tools and equipment versus positions. It’s one thing to have people to maintain a public safety radio network or operate a computer center. But we also need to provide switches and radios and large-scale computers and space to keep those functions operating.
There are the other jobs of government – the public information officers and municipal TV channel, and support for arts organizations and the library, not to mention feeding the homeless and housing the hungry (and vice versa). All these are important functions, all requiring people, as well as tools and materials and other resources. Finally – and most important, perhaps – are the visible jobs of government – the people who run community centers and libraries, the cops and firefighters, the workers who fill potholes and maintain the electric grid.
Although my job is tough, and my decisions are hard, I don’t envy the elected officials who have to make choices for the government as a whole. Then those elected officials need to explain those choices to voters – many of whom have lost a job or a home themselves. And those explanations often occur during the heat of an election campaign, when emotions and misinformation abound.
Tough times, tough decisions.
Note: A few more details about the budget issues with the City of Seattle’s technology are in a recent Puget Sound Business Journal interview here. The Seattle Department of Information Technology’s budget for 2010 was authorized at $59 million and 216 positions – see DoIT’s and the full City budget here.