How to work with government teams 

Blog |April 19, 2017 |Ivy Ong

Citizens have fast-increasing access to tools that enable them to monitor government performance and express their views in real time. Efforts to empower citizens need to be accompanied by state mechanisms to ensure accountability and responsiveness.

Greater accountability and responsiveness can only be brought about by working with government teams across all levels.

MAVC is working in South East Asia and Africa with partners  to promote transparency and make government more effective and accountable. Read below tips and experiences from Ivy Ong on how best to work with government teams...

Have you watched Zootopia? There’s a scene there that paints a picture of how citizens view government.

I find it easier to start things off by bringing stereotypes and assumptions to the fore. Haven’t seen the movie? View the scene below:

Two months after leaving government, I worked in an INGO and my teammate showed this clip to me. I remember her telling me that this was how she saw Philippine government: uber slow, not customer-oriented, and archaic. After the rants and giggles, she quickly apologized since she remembered that I worked in government for four years.

What do you do when you find yourself in the unique position of working alongside public managers or civil servants? What do you do when the public manager you’re working with is making it difficult for you to implement the project within the government department?

Let’s start by standing on the shoulders of giants. Ken Watanabe wrote a book with caricatures of non-problem-solving kids and that “chances are you know people just like them at school or work”:

Ms. Sigh: the person who gives up easily, is terrified to fail, and deathly afraid of people laughing at her mistakes.

Mr. Critic: the person who always speaks up, shoots down all ideas, very eager to blame others when things don’t pan out, and has a go-to quote - ‘I told you so.’

Ms. Dreamer: this person’s head is always up in the air, satisfied with thinking about dreams, doesn’t attempt to get things done, and doesn’t want to know the details.

Mr. Go-Getter: doesn’t appear like a non-problem solver since he is action-oriented. He may be tenacious and proactive but he always rushes to execute, doesn’t stop to think and reflect, and believes any problem can be solved by trying harder.

The first reminder: be cognizant of the types of non-problem solving traits that you possess. Do you find yourself criticizing others than acting on something? Do you keep pushing for your project even if things aren’t progressing? Do you plop on your bed, heave a deep sigh, and say you want to give up?

You can find these traits in yourself, your teammates, friends, and family. Be hyper-aware of your own assumptions and biases. It can help you understand others better.

Tip #1: Trust-building precedes problem-solving

“You know they trust you when you’re in on the office gossip.” A long-time development practitioner and I were swapping stories of implementation hiccups and triumphs. When she said that line, it struck a cord: trust is the undercurrent of a high-functioning team. If you’re planning to work alongside civil servants, you guys have to get to know each other as human beings. How many kids do they have, why do you do what you do, what do they do to destress.

Beyond knowing gossip, you know you gained their trust when they share personal stories, ask you for tips on non-work stuff (e.g. refer a hair & make-up artist), and surprise you with a Christmas gift of leche flan.

Do you want to implement a project alongside public managers/civil servants? Prioritize building trust and forging relationships. Co-work if possible. Join them during merienda runs for turon or halo-halo. Invest your time on building trust because it’s a great way of showing sincerity and openness to work as partners, not as someone who’s out to make them irrelevant or looks down on them as “just a government employee”. You’d rather work with someone who treats you as an equal right? 

Tip #2: Observe, observe, observe

My former boss used to say: Listen to what they do, not what they say. This was a recurring theme in my NGO life and it became more apparent during my short stint in government. Empathic listening, process observation, and body language assessments helped me and the team make strategic decisions. These ‘soft skills’ were critical when forming actionable items that involved striking a balance between being stewards of public good and preserving a working relationship with government officials we regularly worked with. When you know who you’re working with, you learn how to work with them given their quirks, strengths, and default behaviors.

Remember how Watanabe described the non-problem-solving kids? He used observable traits to get his point across. I figured that giving a guide would be the best way to help you observe behavior. Taking notes of quantifiable behavior can be done by actively listening and observing the people you plan to work with. While recording data points, remember to focus your attention, be firmly grounded in the present, and ‘sense the frequency’ in the room (pakiramdaman or feeling).

Prepare worksheets beforehand to help record data systematically, summarize the data collected, and then you can infer from your recorded observations. The sample questions below are all thanks to Dr. Carmela D. Ortigas and her book + J. William Pfeiffer:

  1. Who are the high participators in a meeting? Who are the low participators?
  2. Who talks to whom? [Pro tip: you can collect & record this information by using a sociogram on communication]
  3. Who do people look at when they talk? Choose only one: (a) single one out; (b) scan the group, address to center; (c) no one.
  4. Who makes what kinds of contributions? [Check out this tally sheet - hat tip to Carmela D. Ortigas and R.F. Bales]
  5. Who talks after whom? Who interrupts whom? Who keeps the ball rolling?
  6. Which members are high in influence (i.e. when they talk, others listen)? Which members are low in influence?
  7. Is there any attempt to get all members participating in a decision (consensus)? What effect does this seem to have in a group?
  8. Does anyone ask for or make suggestions as to the best way to proceed or tackle a problem?
  9. Who keeps the group on target? Who prevents topic jumping or going off on tangents?

These process observation questions helps you assess the content and process of human interactions: what is being discussed and how things are being discussed. I wanted to break it down because there is a science behind the dynamics that “deals with the morals, feeling tone, atmosphere, influence, participation, styles of influence, leadership struggles, conflict, competition, cooperation, etc.”

Observe, record, infer, and engage. Test the inferences by re-engaging with the people you work with. The why is simple: civil servants are human beings too. Learn their default actions and you learn how to best relate with them.

About the author

Ivy Ong is a development practitioner, book hoarder, avid reader of social innovation + management blogs, and a frustrated adult learning facilitator. She’s currently a Making All Voices Count Open Data Fellow and is excited with directing the Metro Manila Civic Innovation Fellowship. Her past lives include leading the World Wide Web Foundation's Open Data Lab Jakarta as its Lab Director and as Program Lead for the Open Data Philippines Task Force of the Government of the Philippines (2013-2016). She lives in Manila, Philippines.

About this blog

This is an edited version of a blog that first appeared on