Devoting time and resources to several key principles can help transportation agencies operate more effectively and creatively.
Self-reflection can yield some truly beneficial results for public agencies: what’s behind your success? What could you be doing more effectively?
Two years ago, Arlington, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Services, the county’s second largest department, sought to get a handle on its many programs – and nearly 1,000 employees and contractors – by understanding those strengths and weaknesses.
To determine what was working and what wasn’t, consulting firm Denison gave a culture survey to all employees and measured four essential traits and 12 focus areas of organizations, such as adaptability, mission, consistency, and involvement.
Denison then benchmarked those traits for comparison to thousands of other companies and public agencies across the country, and compared each of the department’s bureaus against each other. Mine, the Division of Transportation’s Commuter Services Bureau, emerged as an outlier, with some amazingly good results. Something good was happening here!
Following this, I outlined to what key ideas I attributed these results, and what other transportation agencies can follow to suit.
- Put the Customer First
We are public servants. We are here to serve. We may work for the government but we pride ourselves on not being bureaucratic and amazing our customers by going beyond their expectations.
- Share (Transparency)
Managers share information (and thereby create transparency). Sharing fosters responsibility for the program and for each other. Sharing also means don’t be afraid to be real. Share your thoughts, feelings, enthusiasm, credit, ideas, and passion. Share yourself.
- Invest In Team-Building
Create a sense of “us.” It is okay to have a “them” as it fosters the competitive juices. Learn about each other as people and how what each does at work contributes back to the whole. Everyone must understand and know others have their back! This allows people to “confront the brutal facts” without fear.
- Empower, Coach, and Develop Leaders
Empower people at all levels to take action (see #1). Use the coaching model to teach. Develop leadership within the organization regardless of “supervisory” authority.
- Do Emergenetics
Emergenetics, a way to think about what shapes our behavior and thought processes, creates understanding about ourselves, our coworkers, and our customers. Plus, it’s way easier than Myers Briggs.
- Develop and Sustain a Vision and Mission
Know the difference between the two. Come back to it often. Everyone is responsible for the mission and for telling the boss when we’re off of it. All staff should be involved. (And I can’t forget: our division’s success was made in full partnership with my longtime colleagues Lois DeMeester, Howard Jennings, Jay Freschi and Bobbi Greenberg.)
- Build a Strategic Plan
Everyone should be connected to the big picture. A new strategic plan should be written every year. Use vision and mission as basis: What are we doing in this next year? Next few years? Better yet, do a six-year rolling plan.
- Do the Math
Everyone (transparency again) should know from where the money is coming and on what it’s spent. This fosters accountability by all.
- Assess Performance, Measure Results
Did we accomplish what we set out to do last year? Go down the list. Why or why not? Celebrate the successes and learn from what didn’t work. Do this with everyone. Publish Put them on the web.
- Invest in Research and Development
Ask your customers how you are doing on a regular basis. Ask citizens what they think. Ask businesses what they think. Measure. Test. This is about knowledge, impacts. What works? What doesn’t? Why? R&D makes you better.
- Foster a Culture of Learning
Learning is about knowledge and curiosity. Industry and related best practices. What’s new? What are others doing that works, doesn’t, and why? Books. Journals. Guest speakers. Seminars. Field trips. Conferences.
- Volunteer, Partner, and Give Back
Encourage participation and leadership in trade associations. Volunteer to do presentations and assist at industry invents. Network. Doing these things fosters respect for other’s work. And this makes #3 (“us”) okay. Doing these things always pays dividends back to your organization.
Baker’s Dozen Bonus: Be Ballsy
Just do it. Be unafraid. It is easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask permission.
These principles may seem obvious or simple. And yet, oftentimes government agencies of all sizes and at all levels simply fail to do even a few of these, let alone all 12. That’s a shame. I’ve witnessed firsthand how applying these principles consistently over time helped one local government agency do amazing work. I hope others can learn from our lesson.
A version of this post originally appeared on Chris Hamilton’s blog, Active Transport for Cities.
Photo: Hamilton (right) at an Arlington County Commuter Services meeting, via M.V. Jantezen