Running Government like a Business: Customer Service and Succession Planning

BuzuvisBy John Buzuvis, Community Development Director for the City of Plymouth, MI

Today’s world of government is changing quickly.  By design, government is set up to move slower than a private business.  This design, in theory, ensures the opportunity for those who wish to have input to do so at several points in many governmental decisions.  Typically private businesses are not required to hold a public hearing to change a rule or policy.  Juxtapose this with the “time is money” mentality of folks waiting to see what government is going to do, and you find yourself on the precipice of sacrificing inclusiveness for efficiency or efficiency for inclusiveness.

I’ve worked in public service and local government for the better part of two decades.  I’ve seen lots of changes.  Some I’ve embraced; some haven’t made as much sense to me.  During my years of service, one thing has become clear: Lots of people want government decisions to be slow and deliberate when it comes to their “neighbors” but run like a private business when it comes to them.  Precedent is something we deal with all the time in government.  If I say “yes” to one person, I have to say “yes” to everyone who wants to do that same thing. 

One area of government that can be, and in my opinion should be, more like a private business is the customer service experience.  For all intents and purposes, customer service doesn’t cost anything.  Greeting customers/residents with a smile, answering questions, and returning phone calls/emails on the same day are free.  Accessibility and time spent educating customers about how and why government works the way it does pay dividends. 

Customer service and running government like a business don’t mean always saying “yes.”  As an administrator, often times I have to tell people “no.”  Nobody likes to be told “no.”  People will say things like “I pay taxes here” or “I pay your salary.”  Often times, though, people respect and appreciate friendly delivery and the time spent explaining why the answer is “no.” 

Public service is not a utopia, and it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart.  Gone are the days of better benefits than the private sector.  Resources are constrained, and we are doing more with less.  Couple that with an aging group of key employees, and you’re left with the challenge of how to continue the legacy of efficient, customer service-oriented government, with a finite supply of willing and able next generation public sector leaders.  Succession planning is a huge threat to smaller organizations.  Having younger, eager, invested, and talented people to replace us “old timers” is a challenge. 

I love my job and have no plans to move on anytime soon.  However, the question becomes how do we run government like a business, focus on customer service, and get the younger generation of up-and-coming administrators interested in signing up for the long haul?

John Buzuvis is a 2006 alum of the EMU MPA program and has worked in the non-profit/public sector since 2001.  John is the Community Development Director for the City of Plymouth, MI, where he lives with his wife and two children.  

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