Trust, Discretion, and the Employee Experience

Posted on April 27, 2018

Do you trust me?

Right now with Rebecca Woodbury (LinkedIn/Twitter)

What I’m Listening to – Nothing Compares 2 U

What I’m Watching – RHONY

What I’m Doing – painting

Warning: this Morning Buzz is more of a Morning Rant.

We often talk about trust in government in the context of community satisfaction levels. I’m a firm believer that the community’s experience of government (and their satisfaction) is intertwined and inextricably linked to the employee experience.

Back in olden times, in response to rampant corruption, discretion was eroded to make way for bureaucracy and process. Government employees were expected to apply the rules and follow procedures in a fair and consistent manner.

Over time, we created rule upon rule, a procedure here, another step there. In many cases, we created silos and tangled webs, all with good intent but often with weak understanding of future impacts. We focused so much on the “what” that we lost track of they “why.”

Many governments are now trying to shift their culture to one that takes risks, streamlines, experiments, celebrates creativity, requires critical thinking and good judgment. For anyone doing this work in government right now – thank you for your service.

In some cases, we’re asking employees now to exercise discretion, maybe for the first time in their government career. Until now, they’ve operated according to the manual, were told explicitly how to do their job, and could always fall back on “I’m just doing what I was told.” Work has been safe and predictable.

It can be messy and uncomfortable for people on both sides of this (those giving discretion to those who didn’t have it previously as well as those being given it for the first time). It’s important that we recognize and plan for this by providing extra support and top cover. This means investing in training and professional development, creating the space for people to step away from the day-to-day grind, and having their back when they mess up or something doesn’t go as planned.

We also need to consider new forms of accountability that don’t slow us down. Bureaucracy and process were the tools we put in place to hold government accountable and keep us all honest. But we now have new tools: open data, body worn cameras, performance metrics, real-time feedback mechanisms. It’s through these that the future of accountability can be more about equity and outcomes.


And the “I’m just doing what I was told” mentality doesn’t work too well with outcome-based accountability. The new public servant needs to exercise discretion to analyze their work, come up with new ways to achieve better results, understand the nuanced equity issues of policy decisions, build relationships and forge partnerships across departments, agencies, and sectors.

Discretion takes trust, not only within an organization but also with the City Council and the community. They, too, have to be comfortable with and supportive of the process of failure and continual improvement. The connection must be made that this environment, that discretion, can lead to better government service delivery.

This trust and discretion, combined with new accountability tools, determines whether a government employee’s job is to apply critical thinking, creativity, and inventiveness or simply be a human robot. Also, by the way, robots are now a thing, so we don’t actually need human robots. Because, now we have robots.

The level of discretion we give to government employees impacts the type of people attracted to government work, thrive in it, and find it a fulfilling career. If we simply want human robots, well, we should just get robots.

AI Sophia

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