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Opinion: Looking for a Few Good Leaders

It’s time for New Jersey to focus on finding and training the kind of top-level managers who can help us solve our most vexing problem.

If you’re a small business owner in New Jersey, these hard economic times probably have you focusing on the bottom line, cutting the fat and motivating your best managers and employees to improve overall productivity.

If you’re a New Jersey public official, you’re debating endlessly about the bottom line, cutting the fat and, as a result of simplifying the problem, cutting the muscle too. And you’re watching your best managers and employees get abused by the public, burn out emotionally, and head for the nearest exit.

True, New Jersey needs to reduce overall public expenses and the number of public employees. We have no other way of closing our structural budget deficit--which prevents the state from delivering the same level of services--and keeping our state solvent. Over the past three fiscal years, state government has reduced the annual budget from $34.6 billion to about $29.4 billion while cutting 4,071 employees—or nearly 5 percent. At the local level, thousands of teachers, police officers and municipal workers have been laid off just this past year. Career civil servants have experienced the most fervent assault on their profession in memory.

In this crisis, however, we’ve heard no public debate on how to develop government’s most important resource—its people, particularly public managers. Nor have we heard a focused discussion on how these managers could better run programs that keep our neighborhoods safe, our kids educated, and our streets paved.

Our most experienced and skilled public managers in state agencies, school districts and municipal governments have been leaving their jobs in increasing numbers for more than a decade, paralyzing government at both the state and the local levels. A common complaint I hear from my former colleagues in state and local government is that they just cannot find competent, experienced managers to run their programs. The best are overworked and underpaid as compared to the private sector. They’re often the target of unfair criticism and scrutiny from the media and citizens for making tough, but necessary, decisions. If you think government is bureaucratic and inefficient now, you haven’t seen anything yet.

To turn this trend around, the state should establish a vigorous public manager recruitment and training program. Call it “JerseyCorps” or the “NJ Public Service Fellows Program.” Whatever the name, the program should include these features:

  • Recruit and train 1,000 highly skilled nonpartisan public managers with demonstrated leadership and managerial skills. This is less than one-fifth of 1 percent of the more than 500,000 active public employees. Preferably, they would have advanced degrees in public or business administration, education, policy analysis, planning, legal and other programs. They can be accomplished mid-career managers in large private, non-profit or government (federal or other state) organizations, or recent graduates from graduate programs.

  • Establish an accelerated training program providing practical knowledge on public finance, operations, the regulatory environment, policy issues, technology, ethics and so forth. Complement it with training in personal leadership skills development, such as communications and public speaking, team-building, and interaction with the media. The manager-in-training should receive intensive follow-up training while in a full-time position in state or local government. High-quality models already are in place, including the White House Fellows Program and Coro Fellowship Program.

  • Establish a mentoring program through which semi-retired or retired senior executives who served as commissioners, assistant commissioners, directors or business administrators advise and guide the managers in-training.

  • Partner with existing leadership development programs including Leadership NJ, the Citizens Campaign and the Rutgers University Center for Executive Leadership in Government. The program should integrate with the existing state Senior Executive Service. For example, the Citizens Campaign launched the Jersey Call to Service in 2009 to inspire 5,000 NJ citizens to be "constructive participants" as leaders in their communities and government.

Phased in over five years, this program would cost $8 million to $10 million annually when fully implemented. This is the cost for a high-quality three-year training and mentoring program phased in over five years. It assumes $10,000 per trainee per year plus intensive follow-up. If you think $10 million is a lot of money, think about the billions we waste each year in ineffective and inefficient programs. This is a very small investment to better manage more than $75 billion of state and local spending each year.

And while the corporate and foundation/non-profit sectors have made enormous contributions to civic and public leadership in New Jersey—also often generating the innovating ideas behind these programs—state government, specifically the Governor’s office, is the only entity that can provide the leadership and cut through the red tape to make this program effective at every level.

No debating this bottom line: New Jersey government will never improve unless the public managers who run the day-to-day programs are properly trained and empowered to serve the public interest. The state desperately needs new energy, fresh leadership and skilled public servants to fix our most vexing problems.

Jun H. Choi is a Managing Director at Government Strategy Group, a boutique management consulting firm for governments, and the former Mayor of Edison, New Jersey. He served as Executive Director of a Student Achievement Task Force at the NJ Department of Education and worked as a management consultant at Ernst & Young LLP advising Fortune 500 companies. He is a Visiting Associate at Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He lives in Edison with his wife Lisa.

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