August 30, 2017

Can Government Workers Learn to Think Like Entrepreneurs?

By: Gary Schoeniger


(Updated 4/9/2019 to reflect the current number of city employees that have been through the program)

If you’re like most people, the word entrepreneurial is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of government employees. For many, the word ‘bureaucrat’ is often used as a derisive term to describe government workers who may be seen as lazy, unthinking, and unproductive.

And, recent Gallup research seems to confirm some disturbing facts: unhappy state and local government workers cost taxpayers billions each year. According to Gallup, state and local government workers make up a whopping 11.3% percent of the total U.S. workforce, and more than 70% of them are not engaged in their work. In fact, Gallup research shows that nearly one in five government workers are actively disengaged, which Gallup describes as people who spread negativity and cause problems in the workplace.

Actively disengaged government workers tend to have more sick days, more on-the-job accidents and quality defects, more job turnover and consume more manager time with issues than engaged employees.  Given the enormity of this challenge, how do we engage government workers with an entrepreneurial mindset?

After all, many would characterize a government worker as the polar opposite of an entrepreneur, yet, that is precisely what Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry set out to do in 2015. Mayor Berry, an entrepreneur himself, convened with local economic development and community college partners to find a way for city employees to develop an entrepreneurial mindset.

While thinking like an entrepreneur is nothing new for those who endeavor to start and grow new ventures, it is a new paradigm for public servants and others who work within large bureaucratic organizations. Needless to say, it was an idea that was initially met with skepticism, and more than a few raised eyebrows: “You want to train bureaucrats to think like entrepreneurs?”

With the Mayor’s help, a unique employee learning and development plan was devised and 100 city employees from all levels of the organization participated in a pilot of the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative’s Ice House Entrepreneurship Program, an experiential, problem-based learning program designed to immerse participants in real-world entrepreneurial experiences that enable them to develop entrepreneurial attitudes, behaviors, and skills.

The Ice House Program was initially developed with funding provided by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, an avid supporter of driving entrepreneurial thinking within mayors as evidenced by their annual Mayors Conference on Entrepreneurship.  Ice House challenges government workers to think differently about their role in the organization, seeing problems as potential opportunities while seeing themselves as active contributors within their roles.

Albuquerque city employees from front-line sanitation workers to high-level leaders worked in small teams to identify and solve problems within their organization. Drawing from best practices in design thinking, participants learned how everyday entrepreneurs identify and solve problems in real-world, resource-constrained circumstances using an iterative experimental approach.

Almost immediately, they began to see results. One worker, a driver in the city’s solid waste department, was so inspired that he went back to his manager asking for support in finding a way to redesign trash and recycling pick-ups in his division, an effort that resulted in thousands of dollars in savings to the city. Another participant chose to move the city’s defensive driving program to an online format that will save taxpayers more than $70,000 per year.

“Once the entrepreneurial lightbulb goes on, the mystery is out of it,” said Mayor Berry. “It’s not hard for someone to have an entrepreneurial mindset; I believe we are all wired for it. The Ice House Entrepreneurial Mindset training helps us realize just that.”

Two years later, Albuquerque has expanded on the pilot to eventually touch every city employee. To date, over 700 city government workers have been empowered with an entrepreneurial mindset and a new attitude towards their work including several who have been promoted.

“The outcomes of this talent development program couldn’t be more powerful,” said Tom Darling who oversees the City’s Public Service University. “We are not just teaching people how to think like entrepreneurs, but how to view their current situation as an opportunity where innovation and creativity are encouraged as opposed to a position of powerlessness where employees simply do what they are told. Our employees are feeling empowered, they are finding their voice and returning to their jobs with a renewed sense of ownership, purpose, and pride.”

Not only are these government workers transforming Albuquerque by embracing an entrepreneurial mindset, perhaps in some small way they are also redefining what it means to be a government employee.

To learn more about the City of Albuquerque’s effort, visit the Mindset Memo website here.

See how the city has continued its efforts to promote entrepreneurial thinking more recently here.

Gary Schoeniger
Founder & CEO
The Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative

Tom Darling
Certified Ice House Facilitator
Division Manager, Public Service University
City of Albuquerque