Splits in Public-Private Views of Productivity

Both the government sector and private industry see the productivity benefits of technology similarly, but differ on other dimensions

In a recent survey — undertaken by Nintex — of attitudes in public and private organizations, 600 managers in the United States completed a 15-minute online questionnaire. The sample was made up of 150 respondents from private firms of more than 200 employees, 150 federal employees, 150 respondents from state government, and 150 local officials. All were management-level staff.

The results dispel some common myths about the difference in motivation between the public and private sectors. To characterize the typical stereotypes, public employees are thought to be mostly motivated by protecting their jobs and prerogatives and only secondarily by their public-service mandate, the job they are actually paid to do (e.g., distributing licenses at the department of motor vehicles), whereas private employees are supposed to have their eyes on the prize: the company’s profit (and their own ultimate wealth dependent upon it), and be full of energy about fulfilling corporate goals.

Of course, the reality is far more mixed. In fact, you could make a case that, into the late autumn, everyone was transfixed by the slow-motion train wreck of our politics, and no one was particularly productive. But that’s for another article. As it is, attitudes expressed in the survey indicated that the two sectors have a lot in common, along with a few interesting differences.

Most respondents (76.7% and 71.3%, public and private, respectively) have spent their whole careers in the same sector, suggesting that most people don’t know how “the other half” lives. Whatever culture clings to being either a private or public employee is potentially alien to the other. However, more than 70% of all respondents said they believe that private organizations have better technology, are more efficient, less bureaucratic, and have bigger budgets.

One real distinction is that technology in the public sector is notably older than in the private sector. Reasons for this are several, but mainly public funding for technology is harder to come by, and, since public entities generally don’t make money (there are exceptions, like the Triborough Bridge Authority), employees are more often viewed as cost centers than as contributors to profit.

An illustrative anecdote: the main reason Hillary Clinton’s IT people put in a private email server when she was Secretary of State was that government-issued technology available was behind the times. As another example of the public-private disparity in technology, the average life of a PC in corporations — although having stretched out in the past half decade — is still four-to-five years, whereas, in many government departments and schools, PCs are kept in circulation for an average of seven years and some as long as nine. People who need the latest stuff have to pay for it themselves, and thus the private email server.

President Barack Obama didn’t get the $1 trillion deficit-shrink he achieved during his administration from nowhere, and belt-tightening has been felt in recent years throughout all levels of government as they try to ease the tax burden of citizens who have been under economic pressure for coming on a decade now.

Nonetheless, most (70%) survey respondents in both sectors shared a general view that they were either “productive” or “very productive” with their existing technology. On the efficiency side, only half (53%) of public employees said their organizations were more efficient than average, while 60% of private sector people thought their firms were above par. Whether or not this perception is true, it is believed to be true.

In another sidelight into technology spend, only 15% of respondents in both sectors said their budgets are declining.

One difference between the two is in time spent on so-called “administrative” tasks. Around 42% of public employees said they spend “more than half” their time on them, while only 22% of private employees said the same. This finding highlights the need, particularly in the public sector, for workflow automation, which frees up workers to attend to the main business of the organization. In the survey, respondents from both sectors cited workflow automation as a top priority.

With respect to decision-making, public employees appear to have slightly less autonomy than their peers in the private sector. Only 23% of private employees said they had to get approval from leaders to finalize decisions, while 31% of public employees said they did. The vast majority of respondents (65% in private, 58% in public) described their decision process as mixed; that is, some decisions are made independently and others require approval.

Almost everyone seemed to make use of mobile applications that were not issued by their organizations. A small percentage (11%, private; 8% public) used 11 or more. Clearly, no organization is keeping up entirely with the range of new applications coming on stream all the time, many of which employees feel make them more productive. Beyond themselves, in reference to their own organizations, about a quarter of respondents in both sectors said none of their departments use their own apps for work. Put the other way, three-quarter of them do.

Consistent with that result, only small proportions in both sectors (11%, private; 7%, public) said their organizations have the latest technology, although majorities in both (68%, private; 71%, public) said their technology is “relatively up to date.”

Although about half (48%, private; 52%, public) said their organizations usually buy technology, about one-third (31%, private; 32%, public) said they “build some” and “buy others.”

With respect to cloud technology, private firms were somewhat more likely (34%) to run “more than half” their systems in the cloud than public entities (25%). Only 3% of either said they run “everything … in the cloud.”

On the budget front, 38% respondents from private companies said theirs were going up, but only 32% from the public side said the same. However, about the same number (16%, private; 15%, public) said theirs were going down. Most expected their budgets to remain flat.

One area of striking consistency was how each side views the other. Generally, they both view the private sector as having better technology, being more efficient and less bureaucratic, and having bigger budgets than the public sector.

Finally, asked about top priorities for technology investment — and given a list that included accounting and finance, workflow/process automation, intelligence and reporting, human resources, expense management, customer relationship management (CRM), marketing automation (like Oracle Eloqua or Marketo), collaboration tools (like Slack), and eCommerce — public sector employees chose workflow/process automation first (with 44% citing it), whereas, for private sector employees, collaboration tools edged out workflow/process automation by a nose (38.7% to 38.0%). Other results didn’t differ much by sector, but private firms emphasized CRM and marketing automation to a greater degree, which is what one might expect from organizations that sell products to customers.

In conclusion, some of the differences in perception between private and public entities with respect to technology are real, and others are mere stereotype. Commerce does have an invigorating effect: having to make and sell something to somebody keeps firms on their toes. Nonetheless, employees from both sectors face many similar problems and issues, solve them in similar ways, and have similar aspirations.

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Technology Analyst

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