Power Players: The Business Of Government

Politicians love touting success in business as a reason to vote for them, saying operating philosophies and practices that work in the private sector will work in government. But is it really true?

Jim Lientz thinks so. “An awful lot of what goes on here [in state government] looks like what goes on in a large corporation,” says Lientz. “Clearly there are differences because the government structure is different and some of the rules, appropriately, are different, but if you think about the day-to-day activities, what we are doing in state government is delivering services, fulfilling needs and, I like to say, helping customers realize their dreams.”

Lientz, a successful 30-plus year veteran of the banking and financial services industry, was recruited by Gov. Sonny Perdue to serve as Georgia’s first chief operating officer in January 2003. His charge was to lead a cultural shift in state government, developing a customer-friendly, people-focused government where delivering quality customer – or citizen – service took priority. Equally important was his mission to develop the “bench” for leadership, identifying talent within agencies and helping cultivate career trajectories to bring them into leadership roles.

Having stepped down from the COO position on June 30, Lientz reflects on the hits and misses of his tenure in government. His overall sense is that he and his team were able to affect real, sustainable change to the way the state conducted its business.

“Are we perfect?” he asks. “Absolutely not, but it’s been rewarding to me to watch employees get excited about delivering quality customer service, removing impediments and working on new processes to make service delivery easier.” His favorite example is the overhauled Department of Drivers Services (DDS).

“People had come to expect poor service deliv-ery,” says Lientz. “That’s clearly unacceptable. We had a policy around here that if you wait more than 30 minutes you got a free li-cense, and we were giving away as many as 1,000 to 1,200 on a weekly basis. We weren’t focusing on the issues.”

In Lientz’s mind, lack of funding wasn’t the issue. “We didn’t have enough money to do this or that, which, with all due respect to the people here, is the first excuse,” he says. “We say, ‘It’s unacceptable. These people are citizens; they’re paying our salaries.’”

Lientz and his team found a career employee in the state budget office, Greg Dozier, who is now at the Department of Trans-portation, to tackle the overhaul. “The change was remarkable,” says Lientz. “He was able to energize his team, ask for new ways of doing things, what were some process improvements we can make.”

Rather than waiting for a new driver’s license system to be put in place, the DDS began to work on things it could fix, streamlining operations behind the scenes and moving customers more efficiently so that wait times in lines were shaved. The system wasn’t perfect but it was improved and everyone – employees and customers – were better for it.

“Nobody was happy under the old system,” says Lientz. “When you’ve been standing in line for two and half hours and I’m serving you on the other side of the counter, do I want to make eye contact when you get to me? That’s the last thing I want to do, and then I look beyond you and there are 50 more like you, all mad because they’ve been in line a long time.”

Process improvements were made across all state agencies, often at the recommendation of task forces set up by The Commission for A New Georgia.

“The commission be-came a fantastic resource,” says Lientz. “They were able to attract industry experts to serve as consultants. If we had a fleet problem, for example, we could talk with someone from UPS or Georgia Power. They validated some of the things we knew, affirming, ‘Yes, this needs to change,’ and then gave ideas about how to reform.”

But Lientz was also able to address the issue of leadership development within state government. “One of the first things I did was sit down with all the commissioners and talk about what they did,” he says. “The last thing I’d ask them was, ‘By the way, if you get hit by a bus on the way back to the office, who’s going to take your place?’”

The question elicited a standard response: “So and so has been there for 20 years and is really good.” Then Lientz asked his follow-up question, “Has he or she gone through the same leadership training you’ve received to be prepared to take over? Do you have any other high-potential leaders in your department?”

As a result, in 2004 the Governor’s Executive Lead-ership Program was form-ed. After training about 350 people representing a cross section of agencies, the staff took the next step and asked commissioners to identify people in their organizations and agencies with the capacity and willingness to serve at the commissioner level.

“This is true executive leader training,” says Lientz. “We were looking for those rare people with both the capability and desire for leadership.”

The result is a progressive, sustainable model for leadership development.

A businessman for most of his career, Lientz was a rookie in the world of partisan politics. He wasn’t much impressed by it. “I think it’s counterproduc-tive,” says Lientz. He was disappointed by the attitude of some legislators with respect to creating a more efficient government.

One method of focusing employees on developing efficiencies was to make the goal measurable. “We put a lot of effort into becoming the best managed state in the nation, delivering quality customer service,” recalls Lientz.

The Pew Center’s ranking system measures money, people, infrastructure and information. The national average is B-minus, but Georgia was able to raise its ranking to B-plus and is currently third in the nation, poised to achieve an A ranking.

Employees were energized by the improvements, says Lientz, but lawmakers were more interested in the bottom line.

“They typically want to know how much money you saved so that they can get that money to spend on something that they’re interested in,” he says. “It’s natural but it’s frustrating. Good organizations overcome that. There needs to be some recognition of what’s been done, why it was done and why it’s good for the state. That’s been disappointing for me.”

The next stop on Lientz’s career journey is Safe Harbor LLC, a values-driven career and leadership consulting firm. He’ll work with clients on the same issues he dealt with as Georgia’s COO. He will also be serving as vice chair of the board of the Georgia Ports Authority.

“I confirmed a lot of beliefs I had about leadership through this job,” says Lientz. “I found what worked in business could work in government.”

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