Learning in Action: “Mission Mystique”

We’re thrilled to highlight this story as a part of our Learning in Action series! Below, MPA student Emma Weisser shares her story about putting learning into practice in her role working in local government:
Emma Weisser
Emma Weisser

In the course Public Personnel Management, we learned about “Mission Mystique” in public organizations- essentially, how creating a well-connected, intrinsically motivated workforce leads to happier workers and a better product.

While I don’t directly manage others, in my work I oversee a network of about 45 social workers who use a county-wide database for reporting information on the homeless clients that they serve. The database has had a really bad rap- it’s about 5 years out of date, it’s a requirement that they have to do, and it’s not well integrated into their daily work.

As you may expect, the database was not well-used or well-kept. Motivation to use it was low, if not non-existent.

So, I began applying the principle of “Mission Mystique” to my work with these users. The idea was to connect the workers with the core purpose of the database in order to increase their interest in using it, and hopefully, increase the quality of the data being entered. I created a strategic plan for the project, identifying key points for improvement which would ideally lead us to a point of being a network with “Mission Mystique” (or as much as we could be, given that the workers are spread out over many different agencies). This strategic plan was based off of the key principles identified in the Mission Mystique framework.

Here are a few examples of how I tied the Mission Mystique tenants into action:
  •  Agency personnel are intrinsically motivated. For this principle, I needed to show how entering data into this database was helping them to serve homeless residents. I produced “people friendly” infographics to showcase how our department had used the data over the past year to support new funding initiatives, raise public awareness, etc. This was blasted out to the users and to the county elected officials, so that the users felt like a part of the project. This is also now the first thing that new users learn about when they come for training.
  • The societal need met by the mission is seen as urgent. A strong point of contention for social workers is their frustrations working against “the system.” Our data could show us this, but my department had not done a good job of using current reports to identify service gaps. So, we started a monthly committee to review priority issues using reports pulled from our database. This generated a lot of great data-informed discussions about key issues, and allowed social workers to weigh in on what they experienced as well. Then, these discussions were summarized and sent back out to the people entering the data, so they could see how their data was being used to move new projects forward or bring tough issues out into the forefront of the community discussion.
  • Learning/ renewal is ongoing. I started a monthly “quick tip” email blast to the users, with updated guidance and answers to FAQ’s and common issues. Feedback was very positive on how this provided good ongoing training and reminded people to use the system more frequently. It also allowed me to talk about how to improve data quality without sounding like I was reprimanding users, and made me more accessible to people if they had questions.

There are still a lot more things that I’d like to do using the Mission Mystique principles, but in just 7 months of applying some new ideas I’ve drastically increased the level support from the users. It’s also created a more collaborative attitude toward the database- the users are seeing it as “their” project more now and even state- in public meetings, no less!- that they have come to see the value in it.

To learn more about Mission Mystique, check out Charles Goodsell’s book Mission Mystique: Belief Systems in Public Agencies. Special thanks to Emma for sharing her story with The Leaders’ Lounge!
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