Serving public servants and broken systems

By Steven Thomson

I don’t work directly with the public. My customers are people who work in local government. I serve public servants – and it brings me joy and satisfaction.

I’m a Lean consultant. That means I facilitate workshops where people get to step back from their work, name the good they create, figure out ways to measure a product that are meaningful to them, and improve the work itself.

Not long ago, I worked with a team to map their process. When asked, “What is the first thing you do when you start to archive these projects,” the response was “freak out!”

That is not a good place to be.

The process was so complex and broken, just the thought of trying to work on that process was stressful. Not surprisingly, the process had basically been shut down – and the backlog allowed to accumulate.

With a little work to understand the customers’ needs and the legal constraints, we eliminated microfilming of records entirely, identified that off-site storage was no longer needed, and cut the time to process files by about two-thirds.

Freak out is no longer the operative emotion.

On another project, one of the team members was the organization’s most loved curmudgeon who was nearing retirement[1].  I was warned in advance of his bark and assured that it was not followed by any bite.

He was working in a similarly broken process. The backlog of work was huge, there was no way to consistently bring cases to a satisfactory resolution, and it wasn’t even clear what was the priority to do today.

Working together, we rewrote letters to put them in plain English whenever possible, redesigned the process to deal with the most complex and recalcitrant cases, built a system to make the status of all cases visible at a glance, and developed better ways to facilitate handing cases off from one team member to another as work demands shifted.

Now there are almost no calls asking “what does this letter mean” and many fewer asking “why hasn’t this case been closed after months and months” – because the case is actually resolved. The City Council is actually seeing the results in the community – and saying so publicly. And the team member I mentioned? Skeptical at the start of the process, he agrees that the work is a lot smoother, a lot less frustrating, and a lot less stressful. He might even put off retirement.

Broken systems like these have a direct impact on the services the public receives, but they are also inhumane. Helping make the daily work of government employees smoother is a real, substantial and demonstrable win-win. I am proud to serve public servants.


[1] I asked the person in question if I could describe him in these terms. He responded “I’m definitely a curmudgeon, but I didn’t know I was ‘well-loved.’” I assured him that, in fact, he is.


Steven Thomson croppedSteven Thomson is an independent consultant working with local government agencies on performance management and process improvement. He comes to this work as an applied cultural anthropologist working on questions of local cultural complexity, community-driven development, religious diversity, architecture, and kinship. Learn more about him at



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