A City change agent’s reflection on their experience……

We have undertaken significant improvements to the development processing system.  No matter how good a plan is to address customer service culture issues ….we found that the plan did not meet expectations.  We had good intentions by having full participation by a Staff Action Team, made up on representatives from departments, to develop and move improvements forward. We also had executive management and political leadership say that change MUST come or else, however, the truth of the matter is that unless the culture is changed from both top down and bottom up, the plan WILL NOT work.

The culture is engrained and entrenched.  The attitude of staff that, as most government employees, has seen policy stances range the whole gamut each time a City Council or City Manager change is made.  As one mid-level manager told me, “I’ve seen studies and consultants come and go, this will be another one on the shelf. Give me the handouts to fill out, and the survey to take; in the end, when the new city manager comes on board or the new council is elected, we will change this one too.”

If I had one thing to do over, it would be to create small vignettes of a typical customer interaction wrought with problems and show how the process changes can make a difference and how they can impact this very situation.

The information as presented is very good, but overwhelming; couple that with staff who are fidgeting because they have been pulled away from their normal work assignment; and you will be lucky to get 20 minutes of actual listening time.

Breaking the information into small vignettes will help not only the learning process, but also show staff how indeed this process can work for them. We are all selfish creatures in the end and really want to know “how will this help me?” which is in direct conflict with the customer’s perspective, “how can you help me?”

At a recent meeting with development-related staff, the newly elected Mayor, who is also a large commercial developer, expressed his concern over staff’s perceived attitude of indifference. He explained carrying cost, land cost, interest, etc. Staff listened intently and did not raise any questions. The short meeting was over and as soon as the Mayor walked out of the room, staff came alive with discussion and was very perturbed that the Mayor would discuss financing with them. Is he not aware that is the developers’ risk, and the higher the risk, the higher the payoff, so why complain to staff?

One of the most difficult areas in process changes is one of ingrained institutional culture of tenured staff who are often the only “movers and shakers” in a department, although are not doing any moving or shaking anymore. I refer to some of these staff as “lifers”. Lifers are vested into the retirement system, have made decent reputations for themselves, and often are earning a comfortable living and are just trying to make it to retirement. When this makes up a good portion of senior or mid-level management staff, no wonder it’s difficult to make any positive changes towards integrated and project-oriented processes that address customer needs.

One of the only ways to begin to turn the tide is to first “show” these staff how the improved business process can make their life much “easier” so they can therefore sail off to retirement in their twilight years with little or no interference.

This is a critical balance because the lifers can and will crush your improvement processes or steps toward change. Small incremental changes with their buy-in will pay off in the long-run when all of the small changes add up to big returns over the course of a year or so. Be patient with these folks. Often, they have not kept up with technological changes and are hesitant to try anything “new”. Make it as easy as possible by creating checklists, standard operating procedures, and a training manual with screen shots and easy to understand instructions will go a long way to help bring them along. It will not be an easy process, but it can happen.