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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

It's Amazing We Get Anything Done At All

Photo by Sean McEntee via Flickr

Been reading Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do And Why They Do It by James Q. Wilson.

Aside from realizing that Gov 2.0 isn't all that new - they called it "Reinventing Government" back in the Clinton era - I am starting to realize that federal agencies present a unique kind of sociological challenge: Paradox!

As Wilson points out:
  1. Federal agencies are inherently paradoxical institutions- they must be responsive to the Administration (temporary) while also stable beyond it, acting as a permanent civil service outside of politics
  2. Agency missions can be paradoxical- e.g. regulate and serve the same population
  3. Managers must ensure that workers work, but obstacles prevent them from issuing reward or punishment
  4. Employees are technically accountable to managers,but in reality answer to others - the American people, Congress, etc. - their stakeholders go beyond, may have a different view, and change frequently
...and Wilson doesn't say this outright but putting 2 + 2 together -

      5. Employees are motivated by purpose (my work is meaningful), status (I am recognized for my contribution), and solidarity (I am part of an important agency), but there is a bias that says they will "shirk"or "subvert" at every opportunity.

Making the federal agency/management task even more complicated is the fact that agencies vary in terms of what they visibly produce. Ranking them from most to least preferable, from my point of view:
  • Optimal: Outputs + outcomes - Employees' activities are observable (e.g. how many phone calls taken) and impact is observable (customer satisfaction with agency responsiveness). We can measure efficiency.
  • Somewhat OK: Outcomes only - Employee operates largely unsupervised, but meaningful results can be measured (e.g. number of would-be terrorists stopped). We can measure results.
  • Less optimal: Outputs only - Adherence to process can be measured. Positive in that you know what people are doing; negative in that the effort could be purposeless relative to actual progress.
  • Least desirable: Neither outputs or outcomes: You can't see what they do and you can't tell what difference it makes.
So how the heck do we get anything done in the first place? How do we measure it?

Wilson says that basically, we are self-motivated and peer-motivated. We want to do our duty, and we want our peers to respect us.

That's all well and good, but is there anything else we can do to untangle some of these knots?

What can be done to help simplify, focus, and sharpen our efforts?

 All opinions, as always, are my own.