It is about the people we work with

June 14, 2013

govt blog 2Dissatisfaction with the administration of justice is at a level that none of us should tolerate or accept.  Our nation’s dissatisfaction with the administration of justice is a paramount issue of homeland security.   It’s not that there haven’t been enormous improvements in the structure of the administration of justice in the last several decades. Yet courts have not met the fundamental challenge of reducing popular dissatisfaction. The U.S. Supreme Court’s popularity, for example, is at a quarter-century low.  In a recent public-opinion survey, 43 percent of those polled had serious questions about the fairness of courts, while 37 percent described courts as intimidating.

Eroding trust in government is not confined to courts.  Regardless of where you serve, building confidence in government by improving service is important.  Public sector employee morale has reached a new level of frustration and discontentment.  There is worry, disorder, alienation and discouragement.  All three parts of the courthouse troika (judges, senior court administration and line staff) feel like they are being asked to do more but are receiving less.  The same is true throughout the public sector.  The clamor is not just less in terms of salary, but less in terms of the psychic compensation or positive work environment that is essential for motivating the best in all of us.

The morale of the public sector workforce is fractured and trust in the ability of government to perform competently is equally fractured. These twin challenges if not dealt with effectively by leaders have the potential to do serious damage. Excellence in organizations, particularly in the public sector, is achieved through creating the conditions for innovation and a motivated workforce is essential.  Then desired outcomes can be clearly specified and performance measured regularly so that there is an objective standard against which to gauge success.  Strong organizational culture encourages learning and experimentation.  That is why good leaders know how vital workforce morale is.    An organizational culture that is preoccupied with assigning blame is a natural byproduct of eroding public sector workforce morale.

The danger in the current situation is that leaders will hunker down.  Like those they work with, the leaders are fearful.  Fear is a major impediment to innovation.  Ineffective leaders will try to solve the problems with more short-term fixes such as tightening controls, across-the-board cuts, wage freezes, furloughs and the like.  But the most effective court leaders will challenge employees and colleagues to face problems for which there are no simple painless solutions.  Courts face problems that will require everyone, including the legal profession, to learn new ways.  The same can be said of a lot of the public sector.  There really is not an option to defend every legacy practice to the end.  Effective leaders will use the present turbulence to build for the future and bring closure to part of the past.  To survive these times, effective leaders will need to change the key rules of the game, but to do that they need to have a workforce that is prepared to make change.  Panic, fear and low morale are not conditions conducive for creative change.  We need to have a public workforce that has the capacity to think outside of the box.

Judge Burke is a co-founder of the Procedural Fairness website:  and author of It Is All About the People Who Work in the Courthouse