Public Service
Return to Lessons Learned
Pat spent most of her adulthood and professional career as a manager in public and community service. She was fortunate also to attend Harvard's JFK School of Government's summer program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government. Here are some of the lessons she learned.
Ask Yourself Remember
  • What is the problem? What are the bad outcomes?
  • Is this a problem that needs my attention right now?
  • Have I properly analyzed the problem?
  • What are the issues and questions relating to this problem?
  • What type of problem is this?
    • Type A - problem is clear and answer clear: Then the Leader does the work.
    • Type B - problem is clear but answer is unclear: Then the Leader and the Group work out the answer together.
    • Type C - problem is unclear and answer unknown: Then the Group has to do the work, and the Leader only facilitates.
  • Who are the protagonists and stakeholders?
  • What are their stakes?
  • What are their objectives? (Try to get some verification so you aren't "making it up")
  • What is my role in this situation?
  • What are my stakes in this situation?
  • What is my most important objective?
  • Have I identified all the stakeholders, including the customers ?
  • Try to find the Third Win (a solution in which the most affected stakeholders win--not necessarily or only me or my "opponents".)
  • What are my responsibilities to those "up the line" ?
  • What are the products of my work?
  • What tools are available?
  • How can I improve quality for free?
  • What are all the alternative strategies?
  • What could be the unintended consequencies of following each of these strategies?
  • How will each strategy lower or raise the stakes--for me, the other protagonists, and the stakeholders?
  • Can I draw a decision tree showing decision points, with chance events or competitors moves, and the probabilities of each?
  • Is this the last clear chance to change directions?
  • What are the key assupmtions?
  • What are the unstated assumptions?
  • Can the unstated assumptions be discarded?
  • How are my biases affecting the way I analyze this situation?
  • What are my criteria for evaluating options?
  • Are they really relevant?
  • Have I done all my homework?
  • How good is my data?
  • What values are at stake?
  • Is the symbolism in this situation more important than the facts?
  • What is the source of the values applying in this situation?
    • Individualistic: the driving force is free choice; decisions are made by the market; and the role of the state is to serve individuals
    • Social contract: the driving force is agreement; the decisions are made through politics; and the roles of the state is to attain agreement.
    • Technical or organic: the driving force is efficiency; decisions are made by experts; and individuals should serve the state (public).
  • What is more important in this situation: attitude, knowledge, or skill?
  • What's in it for them? and for me?
  • Am I trying to focus on more than one thing at a time?
  • Have I set my priorities properly?
  • How do I best leverage my time?
  • What else? The best information often comes at the end of a discussion--ask "what else" and then wait.
  • Am I hearing what people are saying--and what they mean?
  • Is our focus on what went wrong (problem oriented) or on what we want to do now (solution oriented)?


  • Managers need to balance getting today's job done against "am I doing the right job"?
  • Managers fail when they fail to devote their attention in the right direction.
  • What you choose to focus on determines how well you do.
  • A manager's essential resource for managing is the trust others have in him/her.
  • For difficult problems, there are no right answers.
  • Everything we do has consequences. Think about them!
  • Understand your authorizing environment--those people or groups whose support you need to get your job done: subordinates, bosses, legislators, clients, customers, vendors, press, citizens, other agencies and organizations both public and private.
  • Remember to deal with all parts of your authorizing environment.
  • Political support is only good for the day. You need to keep taking it's temperature.
  • Experts are always advocates--treat them skeptically and question their assumptions.
  • Remember to evaluate your work, project or program: before, during, and after implementation. Learn from each stage.
  • If there already numerous studies, rather than doing another one, study the studies (meta-analysis).
  • Before you do a study know your sample size and identify how large an effect will be needed for it to be statistically significant.
  • The way the policy analysis question is framed is a determinant of the answer.
  • The more I can generate ideas about how to look at a problem, the more options I will have.
  • If you don't like the answer, get a new question.
  • Identify and challenge every assumption, especially your own.
  • Notice how you are characterizing an issue. What you see as it's "face" is a powerful factor in how you will deal with it.
  • What are your metaphors for thinking about an issue? Could you use different ones?
  • A group needs an optimal level of stress (tension) to solve its problems. Too much tension and the group disintegrates. Not enough tension, and it ignores the problems.
  • Leadership is managing a group's learning process.
  • Leaders help the group and keep it together while it inches its way from A to B, figuring out where B is as it goes.
  • Leaders do not have the answers.
  • There is a difference between leadership and authority, and the roles have different functions, use different tactics and get different results
  • The leader's job is to keep the group focused on solving the problem--and to keep the stress at the optimal level.
  • You can't be a leader if you keep worrying about your leadership status.
  • When leaders have warm fuzzies about their group, they are probvably avoiding forcing the group to do its adaptive work.
  • Good rapport with the press is essential but don't mistake it for friendship.
  • Reporting calls are like casting calls. When a reporter calls you, he/she is working on a story and either (a) needs more information or (b) has a role in mind for you to play. Figure out which it is before you get too far into the conversation.
  • On TV it's how you look, on radio it's what you say.
  • Lay the foundation for a story, and manage its conveyance to the press. Don't wait until the press picks it up, or you'll be the victim.
  • Establish your credibility with the press outside of "story" time. Do briefings or educational meetings - help them learn.
  • Develop a communications strategy about what information is to be conveyed and by whom.
  • Understand the three circles of management:
    • Values: social, personal, and organizational
    • Internal capacity: product, procedures, and performance
    • External pressures: authority, politics, and accountability
  • Remember that progress only comes in bites--you can only eat an elephant one bite at a time.
  • It's much easier to change your attitude than acquire a skill.
  • Learn to ask good questions--and listen to the answers.

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Bill Dillon (KG4QFM)
Pat Watt (KG4QFQ)
This page was last modified on August 9, 2009

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