Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Employee Involvement in Seattle: Reengineering Government in a City Lacking a Financial Crisis

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Employee Involvement in Seattle: Reengineering Government in a City Lacking a Financial Crisis

Article excerpt

The question of "what services ought government provide?" has been the source of much debate this decade. Municipalities across the United States have grappled with decisions over contracting out what has traditionally been government work to the private sector, aiming to save money and/or improve services. Experience, however, at the local and national level has revealed that contracting-out has not been the panacea that was hoped, and results have been mixed. Such answers have not come easily in part because of the difficulty in measuring comparisons between the public and private sectors at both quantitative and qualitative levels, insofar as government exists to serve citizen interests beyond the profit concerns of the private sector.

In 1994, the City of Seattle attempted to pass legislation which, in management's view, would have reinforced existing rights to contract out local government work as it deemed necessary and, in labor's view, was an attempt to give the city carte blanche authority to eliminate union jobs. Approximately 75 percent of Seattle's 10,000-member work force is represented by 45 different bargaining units. The proposed city ordinance was met uniformly with outraged opposition by labor, to the point of that citywide strike became imminent. Energies had shifted from mutually supportive relationships to strategizing how to "win" and "beat" the opposition. In the eleventh hour, united at least in a partnership of exhaustion, the parties began to sketch out a "peace process." It marked the genesis of the Task Force on Service Delivery Efficiencies whereby both sides agreed to unite to examine all possible means for making government more efficient and effective, rather than focusing on contracting out with the private sector.

Focus on Productivity

Among the many issues the Task Force on Service Delivery Efficiencies agreed to pursue was employee productivity. A Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) was negotiated over the course of several months. The MOA solidified a labor/management partnership to provide the best service delivery and the highest quality products to the citizens of Seattle at the lowest cost possible through, in part, the Employee Involvement Program. The MOA was premised on a shared belief by labor and management that employees who are actually doing the front-line work in the city have some of the best ideas for achieving positive change.

The MOA provides a citywide structure whereby each department establishes an umbrella Labor-Management Committee to charter Employee Involvement Committees (EICs) around areas of business that seem ripe for change. The EICs are prohibited from discussing wage and benefit issues but can refer the issue to the appropriate forum if necessary. They are, however, free to discuss other issues which, in Washington State, are considered mandatory subjects of bargaining, namely, hours of work and working conditions. Discussion on these issues can take place without union or city negotiators in the room. This does not mean that the EIC members can "cut a deal" with respect to the latter subjects; but they can make recommendations for change in these areas. At the point that their recommendations are considered for implementation, the Department Labor-Management Committee must become involved. The Department Labor-Management Committee might decide that formal bargaining and ratification by union membership is required in certain cases. A citywide involvement oversight committee, comprised of both labor and management, was also formed to oversee the entire program and to support department efforts. Along with the multitude of worksite issues they are tackling, EICs are also spurring re-examination of union jurisdictional boundaries and Seattle's labyrinthine system of some 750 job classifications.

While the city had previously experimented with such strategies as quality circles and total quality management, much of these efforts focused on workplace morale, recognition programs or traditional safety matters. …

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