Changing the Game

by Tammy Rimes

“It’s good enough for government work.”


ou might have heard the expression, or even uttered these words yourself. The meaning is simple: low standards, mediocre work, and one shouldn’t have higher expectations. However, when heard by a long-time government manager like me, these words can sting. As someone who is proud of my government career, I’ve often witnessed outstanding work from government teams. However, I also realize that good news isn’t always highlighted, or doesn’t play well during a ratings-driven negative news cycle.

Governments have a long-standing history of rules, policies, and regulations that make innovation difficult within a complicated system that doesn’t always appreciate change. In comparison, private industry applauds and encourages innovation, and great amounts of resources are often offered to support new ideas and even risky concepts. However, when dealing with taxpayer dollars and intense scrutiny by the media and community, government tends to stick with the tried and true. With a high hill to climb and not many accolades, it’s not always the most attractive employment base for new hires.

Cultivating a Mindset

A few years ago, I was listening to a podcast of a management guru who is known worldwide for his leadership advice. He was being interviewed to share insights and tips for leading high-performing teams. Midway through, he was asked, “How would your advice relate to those who are working for government or in a civil service system?” I was so interested in the upcoming answer that I turned up the volume to really take in the words of wisdom that were sure to follow. Imagine my surprise, and disappointment, when he simply answered, “I don’t believe many of these techniques will work with government, and frankly, I couldn’t see myself working as leader in that system.” What a letdown! He was essentially saying that leadership and innovation don’t have a place in government.

Playing back his words in my mind, I realized he missed an opportunity. In my experience, it can take even greater skills, passion, and persistence to succeed as a pioneering leader in government. Creating change in a political, bureaucratic environment requires the best, brightest, and most persistent individuals. Innovation is truly needed within government to solve some of today’s tough problems and issues.

As the demographics are changing for government teams, the reasons for people joining are different too. Former generations wanted stability: health benefits, a lifetime pension, and a 20-plus-year career. The younger generations desire work that is creative, meaningful, and provides flexible work schedules and upward mobility. If that doesn’t happen quickly, they are moving on to another opportunity.

Governments have a long-standing history of rules, policies, and regulations that make innovation difficult within a complicated system that doesn’t always appreciate change.

An annual workforce survey, compiled by Mission Square Research Institute in partnership with the International Public Management Association of Human Resources and the National Association of State Personnel Executives, seeks to track key challenges faced by state and local governments in the recruitment and retention of employees. The 2022 survey results show 53 percent of current employees are accelerating their retirement plans, with the largest wave coming in the next few years. When asked about the nature of the changing workforce and how to fill available positions, 81 percent of managers are hiring new employees, 37 percent are hiring temporary staff, and 25 percent are re-hiring recent retirees.

Being Relevant

To be successful for the future, governments must strive to update their human resources methodologies. That means starting at the beginning—with the job description. Civil service policies and practices often require a long checklist of “must-haves” without any reasoning behind them. As a hiring manager, my belief is that specific skills can be taught, and aptitude and transferrable talents can be a better reference point for future success. I’d rather choose an enthusiastic learner who can view a problem and be creative with possible solutions than someone who can follow a laundry list of requirements.

One of the best hiring decisions I ever made was a young professional who had helped run her family business since she was a teenager. The elicited answers to the interview questions demonstrated a hard worker as well as an interpreter for her immigrant family. She demonstrated a maturity and leadership skills well beyond her years. Even though her resume did not “check all the boxes,” I made the decision to offer her the position and had to push hard against human resources policies to bring her on board. Her performance throughout her career was outstanding, and within a few years she was promoted to deputy director, leading a division of her own. It takes a leap of faith by a hiring manager, as well as strong will and persistence, to make something like this possible, as civil service often dictates specific requirements that are non-negotiable, making many candidates ineligible from the start.

Another long-standing method of government hiring is posting an available position on the organizational website or advertising in a traditional newspaper classified section. Most people don’t read the classified sections anymore; for those who do, a posting can be missed if not read on the day it was published. As many companies have branched out in new ways to advertise available job openings, including leveraging social media, the old days of posting long, detailed job descriptions are falling by the wayside.

Be Open to Change—and Creativity

The actual workday and the usual way of handling incoming requests is changing too. When faced with increasing workloads and multiple priorities, employees who are new to the process are questioning the old ways of conducting business. For example, the typical procurement process requires the creation of a bid document with well-defined specifications and scope of work. With the lofty goal to be transparent, encourage competition, and have a well-documented process for procuring goods and services, this practice can be very long and cumbersome. For a world that is used to online ordering and next-day delivery at home, the belief is that this capability should be available at work too.

Newcomers are embracing concepts that are less prescriptive and regimented. Rather than attempting to define the ultimate solution, governments are starting to describe the problem or task that needs to be completed while asking industry experts to bring forward proposals. For example, the typical way to advertise a janitorial maintenance contract is to outline a long list of duties and steps. A more creative way would be to list the goal for the project, with square footage, number of restrooms, and timeframe when cleaning can occur, then let companies respond with the most efficient way to complete the task. In one innovative scenario, a company offered robotic vacuums that would continue to clean throughout the daytime and evening hours. This solution reduced labor costs and kept the facility cleaner than the thrice weekly manual vacuuming that would have been prescribed in the past.

Another way to increase efficiencies is a concept called cooperative procurement. This contracting method requires an entity or organization, following public procurement processes, to issue a solicitation with the resulting contract made available for other entities to use. For teams that are strapped for resources, or those who want to streamline the process, “piggybacking” on an already awarded contract allows flexibility and drives resource savings, while complying with best practices in public procurement.

According to Doug Looney, senior vice president of OMNIA Partners, Public Sector, “cooperative purchasing is a strategic best practice for procurement teams across the nation. Leveraging cooperative contracts provides an agency access to products and solutions at the best price in a fast and efficient process, in many cases from a local business or distribution location. Procurement’s ability to stay agile and innovative is more valuable now than ever, and I think that can be accomplished through the powerful partnership gained with a cooperative.”

During my time as a former purchasing agent, I often chose the cooperative path. With a busy organization serving a community of more than two million people, that “in-box” of work never emptied. With small or large emergencies on a weekly basis, it’s difficult to become forward-thinking when pulled in different directions. For example, I often had a schedule and plan for my day upon arriving at the office. Then I would receive a phone call from the mayor’s office or an email from a customer or other department, and suddenly my time was spent fixing the problem of the day. In weighing the alternative of staff resources being used for routine purchases or using our time and insights to plan strategic initiatives, the decision to make greater use of cooperative contracts was an easy one for my team.

Encourage Innovation
Having recently traveled to a procurement conference, with attendees from across North America, it was refreshing to hear about good work being performed by government employees every day. The passion and positive energy were almost tangible as presenters spoke about new projects supporting their communities where innovative ideas were implemented. And the most amazing part? Many accomplished these tasks with minimal budgets or no extra assigned resources. Whether it’s partnering with suppliers on innovative ideas or strategizing with agencies to collaborate across jurisdictional boundaries, their stories helped reinforce the changing roles for government teams.
Headshot of Tammy Rimes
Tammy Rimes, MPA, is the executive director of National Cooperative Procurement Partners (NCPP), North America’s premier association for educational content, legislative advocacy, and support for cooperative procurement. She also formally served as purchasing agent for the City of San Diego, the ninth largest city in the nation, and emergency logistics chief during the 2007 Witch Creek Fires that raged for 17 days and destroyed more than 2,000 homes. Under her leadership, the City consolidated its warehouse operations, centralized all purchasing and contracting operations, and moved to a more customer-focused approach. Her family winery operated a successful tasting room in Old Town San Diego for almost a decade. With past marketing experience in the airline, retail, electrical utility, and wine industries, she has the unique perspective of working in three different worlds: corporate, government, and entrepreneurial.