The State Worker

Column Extra: How government can do ‘the little things’ for its employees

This week’s State Worker column started with a tip that Caltrans employees were planning a barbecue and golf tournament on state time. Caltrans officials said that the off site at Land Park last Tuesday was on the up and up, that managers paid for it with their own money and that anyone who golfed had to burn leave credits.

You have to wonder how many little things that would make state work just a little more pleasant never happen because management doesn’t want to risk criticism. But it doesn’t have to be that way, said Paul Harvey, a University of New Hampshire management expert who we quote in today’s column. Here’s some of what Harvey said that didn’t get into Thursday’s column, followed by a department email that explains the event.

On why government shies away from morale-boosting activities:

It’s very difficult to explain the indirect benefits of a team building exercise, especially to a lot of people. ... The goal really is to communicate the benefit of what you’re doing ahead of doing it. People are less likely to think something is suspicious. If they’re coming right out, and saying, ‘This is a team-building activity,’ people might still say that’s not the best use of resources, but at least (management) is going through the effort to say its intended to be valuable.

On the tipster’s assumption that the Caltrans event was wasteful:

I think you’d get a similar reaction if you compared public perception of government spending to stockholders’ perceptions of private company spending on these types of activities. It’s human nature to be more critical of spending when it’s your money being spent. Stockholders are more likely to question private company spending than the general public or even customers of those companies are because the financial costs to them are much more direct. ...

Taxpayers often have a similar perspective, because for them more spending might mean higher taxes. In both cases the criticism is often short-sighted. Again (that’s) human nature when one’s own money is on the table. Because we all pay taxes, though, there are more eyes on government spending than most companies face, so there’s often more scrutiny.

On the Division of Local Assistance managers’ decision to pay for the Land Park off-site with their own money:

Wow. That’s not common. You almost never see that in the private sector. ... Now, if the department openly advertises the event as privately funded, they would really help themselves out. It’s hard to get mad about that.

On Caltrans’ email to staff explaining the rationale and rules for the off site, sent after The State Worker asked a few questions about the event.

The research pretty consistently shows that an after-the-fact explanation has an uphill battle. Then it sounds like you’re making excuses and trying to cover your own butt.

State Worker columns have space for about 450 words, so much of what informs them never sees print. Column Extras give State Worker blog users notes, quotes, documents and details behind what’s written.