Know Before You Go: 5 Key Checkpoints to Understand Government Culture
by Landon Cook, on Oct 21, 2020 6:30:00 AM
In our last piece, we shared an incredible story about Bob. Bob is a microcosm of workplace cultural impact, and stories like his must be well-understood to build well. There are thousands of Bobs working in closed government cultures right now who are frozen on influence and action because of government’s legacy structure and a fear of rocking the boat. Nevertheless, closed culture does not mean progress can’t be made. Business partners’ can benefit by gaining perspective about government, communicating appropriately to government and responding to the organization’s culture.
Our “Business with Government: Doing More Work, Better” blog series is a roadmap to all types of government. Throughout the sales and delivery cycles, business partners should consider these 5 checkpoints regularly along your journey to understand and cultivate a trusting government culture:
- Checkpoint 1: Perceive the state of the culture within government. Before you begin selling to government partners, ask yourself:
- Is this organization strict/fearful?
- Is it open/trusting?
- Is this assessment a commonly expected and accepted behavior in government?
I have worked in government during both very closed and open times; however, even during the most open times, government would still have been considered conservative by most corporate standards. Just because a certain attire is required, and an ancient procurement method is followed, does not necessarily mean that a government entity is averse to new ideas and ways to work. Accurately assessing and knowing the culture will help you plan your roadmap!
- Checkpoint 2: Find your ‘in’. Work can still be done with restrictive organizations, but it is a matter of finding the proper opening. Government operates under complicated rules and regulations, and even those vary based on the level of openness of the organization’s culture. (I once served under a very restrictive administration… you should have seen how many signatures were required to order a box of pens!) Identifying how restrictive an organization is early on will tell you how high in the organization you should go. Remember: fear responds to base needs, and trust responds to broad interests.
- Checkpoint 3: Identify Your Influencer(s). Oftentimes, informal influencers within government are very easy to point out; however, if you’re having trouble identifying them, it is very likely a sign of a closed culture. In this case, proceed through the hierarchy and ensure your sale or project is formalized within the organization – not tied to an individual.
- Checkpoint 4: Keep an Eye Out for Cultural Tells. Once you have a foot in the door, keep an eye out for subtle cultural signals. They will tell you if you need to course correct. As an example, I remember visiting a very small, rural field office to conduct a system training and implementation (a few months after the Department created its ‘Culture of Trust’ initiative). Upon my arrival, the local field office director immediately rushed to me in a panic – repeatedly assuring me that her staff did not normally dress this way. They were dressed casually (on a Thursday – gasp!), and she insisted this was an exception. I had not even noticed that people were wearing jeans, nor was I even slightly concerned after it was pointed out (the team of 8 employees had earned an extra ‘casual day’ since they had brought in over 100 cleaning supplies to support the local Vocational Rehabilitation office). As my primary workstation was the Department headquarters, she asked that I not tell anyone. The ripple effect of the ‘Culture of Trust’ clearly had not reached this office. If she were afraid of a dress code requirement, she would likely distrust a new system brought to her from headquarters. As a result, I made extra accommodations in the implementation schedule to show her the data and customer-driven (not control-driven) purpose of the new system.
- Checkpoint 5: Monitor the Change. Even after you’ve signed an executed your contract, your finger must be on the culture ‘pulse’ – especially during the delivery of your services and products. Unlike the private sector, the public sector can dramatically change from public pressure. Everything from executive leadership to mission/vision/values is institutionally guaranteed to evolve every few years. However, as an example, workflow, software, and field-level solutions change very slowly. As you work with your government partners, you are influencing the culture at the ground level – and just like in Checkpoint 4, you can transform fear to trust.
If you ask me, culture is the single most powerful force in the universe. Culture threads every person together, binding us to every group with which we belong and identify. And for better or worse, it always has – especially in government. From state-sponsored discrimination to nation-building initiatives like the New Deal, culture shapes how government operates in our world.
What do we do today that our future selves and generations will judge as time passes? And, in the world of work, what will be today’s solutions and standards be that will exist as headaches tomorrow? This is not just a perspective for leadership: cultural awareness with our government entities is a necessity to frame the future of our public-private world.
Written by Landon Cook
Landon Cook is a proven change leader and future-maker. Landon shaped his career within state government, where he inspired the art of the possible by leading and executing the challenge to implement Customer Service Management (CSM) on the ServiceNow platform.
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