How to Make Civil Servants Attractive to the Public Sector

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How to make civil servants attractive - gleanerMy Sunday column  today describes a problem that both Trinidad and Jamaica are facing. How do they make civil servants more attractive to the private sector?

The inspiration came from the following billboards I could not help but notice in Trinidad – click here to see.
Both countries need to move public sector workers into the private sector, albeit for very different reasons I describe in the column. While the need is great, however, the change management execution is weak.
It’s one thing to set policy, but when lots of human being are involved, there are specific best practices that must be followed.
Witness the chaos at the passport office in Jamaica this week. Someone at PICA underestimated the demand that would be generated by the announcement that an almost 50% price increase would be put into effect in a few days. The result? A stampede in which two children were almost trampled and nine were taken to hospital with injuries.
Change management is hard and it’s easy to confuse it with politicking, which it isn’t. Novices at the highest levels of organizations mistakenly believe that “it can’t be that hard,” only to be surprised at the results they fail to accomplish.
In my article, I jump over many of the tricky steps and suggest some themes to keep in mind, but I don’t mean to downplay them. In a single column, I focus on one angle at a time.
Here is the article in full.

How to Make Civil Servants Attractive to the Private Sector

Can workers who have become accustomed to low standards be trained to achieve otherwise? The debate is currently raging in Trinidad and probably will arrive before long in Jamaica.

One of my first summer jobs involved working on a project in a government department. As outsiders to the organization, our team had a specific, tedious task that afforded us the opportunity to observe the employees in the organization.

They worked in two modes. When the “boss-lady” was around, they worked normally and the office bustled with activity. However, when she was away, things changed. Out came cards, dominoes and radios as work was set aside for leisurely pursuits. To prevent surprises, someone was always posted at the window to act as surveillance, studying her parking space two floors below for her impending arrival. Now and then, according to one lookout, she tried to “trick them” by parking elsewhere, so they had to be “very careful.”

Fast-forward to a raging debate underway in Trinidad and Tobago concerning their well-known CEPEP programme. It’s an acronym given to the country’s job programme for low-skilled workers – a version of what we Jamaicans used to call a Crash Programme. To many citizens in the middle class, it’s nothing more than an opportunity for the twin-island’s least advantaged to draw a full paycheck for half a day’s work. Whether or not it’s a worthy programme or not is debatable, but there is widespread agreement that it has contributed to the official unemployment rate of only 3.1%.

Trinidad is also a country where Help Wanted signs hanging outside stores are a regular sight. You can also find permanent billboards advertising employment opportunities. Many CEO’s I have spoken with argue that they cannot find enough people to employ, blaming CEPEP as a contributor to the problem.

Recently, a proposal was put forward asking the obvious: “Why doesn’t the government take underemployed CEPEP workers and train them for jobs that the private sector cannot fill?” Obvious, but not easy to answer. Leading executives quickly came out to announce that the work ethic of the average CEPEP worker was too low to be considered for the real jobs they needed to fill. According to a business owner I spoke with, she may interview but never hire an ex-civil servant. In other words, someone accustomed to being overpaid to play games could not be reformed.

Here in Jamaica, the IMF has placed a requirement on the government to reduce its wage bill, presumably by laying off civil servants in droves. After all, in 2014 Barbados laid off 18% of its civil service while Greece announced layoffs of 180,000.

It’s safe to say that the reluctance to hire a civil servant is real. What should an individual training programme, such as the six week intervention suggested in Trinidad, attempt to change? The answer may lie in three attributes distinguished by author Daniel Pink shared in my column from September 23rd, 2012 – Autonomy, Purpose and Mastery.

1. Experience
Most employees who lack these three attributes are likely to have them in other parts of their lives. They can be taught to transfer the leadership roles they play at home, in the church and in their community to the workplace. It’s one way to affirm these skills, while empowering a worker to recognize that, often, they do have what it takes.

2. Knowledge
Most have never been formally taught to recognize these attributes in day-to-day work. Once they are shown how to identify them it becomes easier to see where they are missing. That allows them to act differently of their own volition.

3. Practice
Any intervention would have to be down to earth, and not just bunch of theory. It must show an employee how to translate abstract principles into daily activities that help take them one step at a time toward further autonomy, purpose and mastery. This is critical as there are no one-size-fits-all behaviours that suit everyone. They need to be crafted to fit the circumstances by an employee who has the right training.

Is a 6 week stint in the classroom enough to make a difference? All the research from behaviour training points to the fact that what happens after training is over makes all the difference. Studies have shown only 60% of the end-result is due to the class itself. If post-training support is provided, maybe it might work, but it’s important to know that there are no shortcuts.

Experience tells me that when behaviour changes are described in vague platitudes, nothing changes. This would be damaging to both the Jamaican economy and the ex-civil servant, who would be unable to make the transition to more demanding employment. Picture our government asking the IMF for one waiver after another, unable to ever reduce its wage bill. Under this scenario, we’d all suffer.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com