Recognize These Conditions? Maybe Your Local Government Could Benefit from an Organization Review.

ARTICLE | Aug 22, 2015

Joe led the public-works department in a mid-sized city for 20 years. His projects came in on time and under budget, he got along well with council members, and his employees generally seemed content, so no one ever spent much time worrying about public works.

But when Joe retired, the city manager requested an Organization Review, and the results surprised everyone. Several positions had been eliminated during the recent recession, and no one was sure who had assumed the duties of those jobs. The department hadn’t upgraded its technology in nearly a decade, and it couldn’t measure performance well because many records were still kept manually. Recent hires and long-term employees alike had great ideas about how to improve the department, but they never offered them because no one had ever asked. The review was completed just as a new public-works director was hired, and it helped the new director set goals and a strategy to guide the department.

A scandal or budget crisis in a local government will bring lots of attention and a resolve to fix problems. But an organization that’s plodding along, not doing anything wrong but not operating at maximum performance, often offers the best opportunity for improvement. An Organization Review can uncover opportunities that aren’t always visible in the day-to-day operations. It is especially helpful when a department head leaves, since the transition is an opportune time to take a fresh, honest look at the health of an organization.

Reviews are particularly relevant now, in the wake of the recession, since they can identify where to restore staffing and determine whether department goals are still relevant.  While each review is unique, there are obstacles to peak performance that tend to surface again and again. Here’s a look at the most common ones.

  • Rewarding clock-punching instead of performance.  Many organizations measure their performance to see whether established goals are being met. But the type of measures we mostly see are counts of specified activities such as the number of meetings held or the number of applications processed—workload measures.  Counting activities is relatively easy to do, but it doesn’t provide quality information about the organization’s efficiency or effectiveness. If the organization does not measure its outcomes, it cannot know whether its results are important or cost-effective or what alternatives might be competitive.  Some organizations may lack the tools and mechanisms, such as technology or training, to adequately assess productivity and performance. Create meaningful measures and give staffers the tools to track them if you’re interested in truly improving performance.
  • Rules that are unclear, non-existent or past their expiration date. Employees in one local government described the recruiting and hiring process as Groundhog Day. Because no one had ever written down the procedures, no one could ever recall exactly how it was supposed to work.  Staff had to “reinvent the wheel” with each new position, leading to inconsistencies from one process cycle to the next. Every organization needs a clear and current set of policies and procedures to govern its work. These will change over time, so they need to be updated regularly to remain relevant. A robust set of policies and procedures will provide accountability and guidance about work. 
  • Technology that’s underfunded or out of date.  One common effect of the Great Recession is a lack of investment in new or improved technology.  A maintenance division without automated maintenance management or asset tracking software forces the staff to perform all tracking by hand. Besides being inefficient and prone to error, the manual tracking prevents the division from developing a reasonable maintenance management plan. As a result, the work is focused on emergency maintenance instead of preventive maintenance. Is your permit tracking system so old it is prone to daily failure, causing staff (and customers) to lose valuable time waiting for the system to reboot? Departments are often nervous about technology upgrades because they can be expensive and it takes some effort to figure out what exactly is needed. Upgrades can also be disruptive, at least initially.  But it’s hard for good people to produce good results with bad technology, and the lack of technology may be creating inefficiencies that are far more expensive than a technology fix.
  • Chaos in the org chart. Aslocal government agencies lost positions through layoffs and retirements, they couldn’t always choose which employees stayed and where. In some agencies, employees report to one supervisor for one function and another for different job duties. In others, employees aren’t sure who their supervisors are. It’s always a good idea for an employee to report to a single supervisor who is responsible for monitoring and managing the employee’s workload and assignments, approving leaves and absences, and providing ongoing training and support. Clear reporting relationships also ensure employees are held accountable for meeting performance and customer service expectations.
  •  “Because we’ve always done it that way.” One city had four different processes (and telephone numbers) for requesting an inspection, even though all of the inspectors worked in the same area.  Another local government agency required all land use applications to go through an historic architectural review committee, even if the project was nowhere near the historic district.  It is common to find steps in key processes that no longer add value, multiple steps that could be combined, and other inefficiencies that exist for reasons that no one can quite remember. Just as technology warrants periodic upgrade, processes benefit from periodic review and evaluation.
  • Forgetting the core mission. One city government had a library system where circulation had increased 28 percent and staffing had fallen by 19 percent over five years, but nothing structural had changed in their work. In another case, community calls for greater involvement led to the creation of more than a dozen citywide advisory boards and commissions – while the city finances and staffing levels were in serious decline. An Organization Review revealed that staffers spent more than 5,000 hours per year working on behalf of these boards and commissions — the equivalent of almost three full-time positions that could have been deployed to provide front-line services.  It is one thing for an organization to decide such activity is a priority; it is another for programs to emerge haphazardly, without intentionality or connection to a strategic vision. Change is always uncomfortable, even when it’s necessary. But foregoing change when it’s necessary frequently results in a loss of capacity to provide core services to communities that both need and deserve them. Saying “no” is a hard but essential part of being a successful organization. Leaders must regularly evaluate their priorities and make sure the work matches up.

There are other signs of organizational health or sickness: Is there a great deal of employee turnover? Are there similar functions being performed by more than one department or work group? What do customers (both internal and external) think of the service the department provides? These questions may occur to a manager from time to time, but most organizations lack the capacity and professional distance to examine themselves as a whole, all at once.

Organization Reviews allow for a closer examination of goals, roles and responsibilities as they exist now, so that leaders can decide whether their strategic priorities are current and whether they have the staff and infrastructure in place to meet them. Like a physical checkup, an Organization Review can provide a sense of relief when no serious problems turn up, and it provides a plan of action to correct the problems it does uncover. An Organization Review often pays for itself many times over in cost savings and increased productivity. More importantly, it provides managers with a new perspective that can contribute to continuous improvement.

These case studies are from the annals of Management Partners, a professional management consulting firm specializing in helping government leaders improve their operations, identifying problems and best practices that reveal ways to increase organizational effectiveness. Visit for more information.

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