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5 Observations from 17 years in State Government a.k.a. “The Bureaucracy”

From about seventh grade, I knew I wanted to major in government or public policy in college and that’s what I did.  I loved it so much that I went right from undergraduate to graduate school to continue studying public policy analysis.  Following graduation with a master’s degree in government from Lehigh University, I was offered a position in a state government management training program called the Pennsylvania Management Intern (later Pennsylvania Management Associate).  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work in different state agencies getting real experience in human resources, budgeting, policy analysis and though not included exactly in the job description, how to get along with challenging people and deliver products on time.  I joined the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PDOC) after completing the intern program, something I did not at all expect to do, and spent the next seventeen years with that agency.  I have been a self-employed consultant for the last eight years.  In reflecting on my years in state government service, a few things stand out:

  • A wise woman I met while an intern with the Pennsylvania State Board of Education told me, “They [state government] hire you to do a job, then they hire two people to prevent you from doing the job.” Truth. And the higher you move within the ranks, the more you see this.  By the time I became the Deputy Secretary for Special Programs and Reentry with the PDOC, I considered removing obstacles a primary duty.
  • Government agencies create job postings with requirements for Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSA). We worked hard to attract smart people with specific qualifications, yet once we were fortunate enough to bring them onboard, we inundated them with policies, procedures, “bureaucracy,” and too often punished them for using discretion. In other words, for using the KSA’s we required of them to be selected.
  • There seems to be endless scrutiny of agency organizational charts and curious fascination with moving the little boxes around to create new chains which are touted as being “leaner,” “flatter,” “more efficient,” “agile,” “responsive.” YadaYadaYada. I had bosses ask me to engage with them in agency reconfiguration.  I’ve always said the same thing: “I don’t care how you arrange the boxes, if the people in the units aren’t good or better outstanding, it just doesn’t matter.”  In government especially, there are barriers to attracting and retaining the very best people.  Likewise, it can take extraordinary effort over a concerted period to work with less than good employees to improve performance.  And if that doesn’t work to remove them from the position.   It’s easier and much more fun to shuffle boxes and build new and modern structures but time might be better spent on developing solutions to get and keep the best and brightest.
  • There are many remarkable, mission-driven staff within the Executive Branch of state government (a.k.a. “the bureaucracy.”)  I had the good fortune to work with and for people of extraordinary intellect with unwavering determination to move the needle.  The very best of these public leaders could articulate their goals and priorities, why the agency and each individual mattered and how pursuing agency goals tied in with the current administration’s vision for a better Pennsylvania.  People want to be inspired and there are great leaders and long-time professional staff who do that daily.
  • The very best ideas come from collaboration among state agencies, political appointees and career staff, but collaboration across silos is beset with multiple challenges. Competing priorities, staffing shortages at one place or another, arguments over turf and who is in control all happen and bog down the process tiring participants along the way. Still, I have never seen anything make something happen like a core group of dedicated people who individually and then collectively decide they are going to get something specific accomplished. Even in the face of resource shortfalls, competing priorities, challenging personalities, things can and do get done. GRIT gets things done in government and life.



  • Skills & Expertise

    • Expert Witness in prison adjustment, determining risk for reoffense and offender reentry.
    • Expert witness in Juvenile Lifer Without Possibility of Parole (JLWOP) resentencing.
    • Public Policy Analyses
    • Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation
    • Data Collection, Analyses and Presentation
    • Grant Writing and Management
    • Public Administration
    • Strategic Planning
    • Program Development and Monitoring
    • Public Speaking
    • Legislative Testimony
    • Leading Collaborative Teams
    • Training and Development
    • Budget Preparation