The cover of Grant County's fiscal-year budget summary in recent years has featured a drawing of a bomb with the fuse lit. The not-so-subtle, if telling, implication was that county department heads needed to watch their spending, or else. If they continued to thumb their noses at budget managers, this image indicated, the budget would explode in their face, possibly in the form of painful but necessary layoffs.
You don't need to work in county government to understand the reason that the bomb cartoon twisted a nerve on both sides of the table. Two languages are spoken in relation to budgets. One is the language of fiscal urgency, the realization that income is precarious and that cost overruns rapidly can devour a contingency fund. The other is the language of middle managers and employees, those who face the urgency of work assignments to which they can never quite catch up but by which they are held up as successes or failures in their jobs.
Hovering over both camps is the time bomb with its fuse lit. One department of county government, the sheriff's department, understands the implied violence of the drawing. Their jobs involve daily risk to life and limb. Today, especially in the world of rural sheriff's departments, budgets mean more than clashes about overtime. The bottom line is not as important as the lives of those on the front lines. To the credit of most employers, including Grant County's governing body, it's generally understood that law enforcement agencies need adequate funding to protect their employees against the bad guys.
Unfortunately, the tendency among management, in the absence of a heavy stick to wave at employees, is the tendency to micromanage. One might argue that micromanagement is a reaction to failed management at the department level (such as, for the sake of argument, a sheriff who is overwhelmed with the day-to-day workload and cannot analyze ways to streamline spending). However, one expert in employee management disagrees with this approach.
Jack D. Deal, a consultant with Deal Consulting and the Deal Company, who holds a bachelor's degree in behavioral psychology from Harvard University, writes: "Micromanaging is usually synonymous with the 'old way of doing things.' 'Dinosaur' managers use the micromanagement approach. The term essentially means to supervise every small step in the workflow process - hence the 'micro.'"
However, times change, and budget managers have started to change as well, Deal writes encouragingly.
"Managers began to understand that good management meant maximizing employee productivity. This could no longer be accomplished by micromanaging. Managers began to understand that knowing their people and helping them do their best was the best way to reach superior production levels. Instead of being an obstacle, managers began to understand it was their job to remove obstacles. ... They no longer insist on telling their employees how to do something because often the employee knows more about what they are doing than the manager. Also they have learned that employees can not only solve workplace problems but also can create and innovate. ... In today's fast-paced, highly competitive business environment micromangers are faced with fewer options. And even though micromanagers work harder and harder, the brutal marketplace will continue to erode their bottom lines."
Ouch. So, according to Deal, the burning time bomb symbolized on the cover of the budget summary will only fuse faster as budget managers try to over-steer the ship. Will budget managers ever stop railing against cost overruns and employee indifference to expenses? Hopefully not. But will they try even harder to trust their employees, including those in law enforcement whose decisions are driven by so much more than the bottom line? Hopefully so.
Anyone with comments about "Editor's Opinion" can contact David Carkhuff by calling 575-0710 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.