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Michael Miller

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By Michael Miller
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How To Make Local Government Sizzling Hot

We’re heading toward the deeper end of the pool now, and it’s past the time for local officials to seriously consider the sustainability of the governments and important programs we’ve entrusted to them. If we’re going to come through the stress tests of the next decade with critical functions intact, everything has to be rethought, everything has to be on the table.

We’ve got to build a common, positive “corporate culture” out of our public workforces. There are too many governments (see Nassau County) where training a fellow employee or even creating your own job description seems like only one more path to job elimination. Efficiency, innovation and cooperation are being stifled, just at a time we really need those qualities.

“Hot-desking” is one strategy that’s being adapted by some innovative governments. In hot-desking, the cubicles come down and employees are enabled to work from any desk, or from home as a teleworker in some versions. In one variation (“hoteling”), desks are reserved or assigned as people walk in.

Hot-desking has been around in parts of the private sector for a long time. More than a decade ago, I did some work at a creative firm in Manhattan in which I was told to choose a workstation and people moved around and bounced ideas off of each other. People could understand how their piece of a project tied into what other teams were working on. It doesn’t work that way in our local government offices where most civil servants are discouraged, sometimes quite actively, from knowing what is happening in the cubicles on the other side of the room.

The phrase is borrowed from the Navy’s “hot-bunking,” in which a sailor coming off a shift takes the bunk of one just starting a shift. There can be serious government cost savings through reductions in the need for space. This is especially so in situations where employees aren’t all in the office at the same time, or are moving between geographically dispersed offices.

The federal General Services Administration has made hot-desking and other “alternative officing” initiatives official policy (“Work is what we do, not where we are.”). The GSA intends to “empower our entire workforce to be mobile for the 21st century,” and needs to increase efficiency to remain sustainable. They are more than doubling the number of employees based out of GSA headquarters.

The government of New South Wales, an Australian state, found that a combination of hot-desking regional offices and teleworking created significant space savings and increased morale.

The English city of Derby (pronounced “Darby”) has a population of 248,000, broadly similar to half the townships on Long Island. They switched almost the entire staff to hot-desking, and now the city hall can accommodate four times the previous number of staffers and the city property portfolio has been reduced by 70 percent.

Working space in almost all local government offices is based on top-down control, with elected officials, senior political appointees and favored managers at the top. The knee-jerk reaction is going to be: This can’t work in my office.

It will work in some places.

Right now, if you need something from local government, you show up at a specific place, before the end of the afternoon. Bring the paperwork. Do you have your paperwork?

Your college-age kid views, shares, posts and purchases with a handheld device.

There is a disconnect between where Long Island governments are and where the rest of the world, for better or for worse, is heading. If our 19th-century governments don’t become more relevant to 21st-century lives, a lot of the local machinery is going over the side, maybe taking critical, life-sustaining services with it in the confusion.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net