Public Services and the Limits of Specialization

The challenges facing today's governments require a management approach that cuts across disciplines and departments.
by | July 24, 2013

As the world has grown more complex, government leaders have responded by constructing their organizations to leverage specialization. Today's local governments, for example, have separate departments for police, fire, recreation, engineering, public works, social services and the like. But is this the best way to produce the best service-delivery outcomes?

Over the past few years, the International City/County Management Association has examined feedback obtained from resident surveys to identify the issues that matter most to people. Six emerge as most important: jobs and the economy; education; safety; health care; the environment; and infrastructure, including transportation. What these issues have in common is that they require a multi-sector, multi-disciplinary and intergovernmental strategy.

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It's helpful to examine this question through the lens of a single area of public service.

I recently participated in a project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) that examined the leadership issues police agencies are dealing with. The BJA's first-phase report focuses on how the management approaches that characterize many of today's police departments -- a command-and-control structure; territorial, function-based silos; and single-jurisdictional service delivery -- are being profoundly challenged. These issues include:

• Severe economic pressures, which necessitate reductions in funding and core-area staff and affect how agencies are organized to provide services.

• Diverse community socioeconomic and demographic complexities, which require inter-agency collaboration with outside groups, such as housing authorities and nonprofits.

• Differing, and often competing, service needs within regions and sub-regions.

• The increased pace of change, particularly in the areas of technology and communications.

• A transforming workforce, including multi-generational staffs with often competing values and expectations.

To address these pressures, many public-safety organizations are employing not only aggressive cost-cutting strategies but also new ways of collaborating, such as shared services and consolidations according to the BJA report. Yet these strategies rely on traditional organizational structures and do not address the reality identified by former San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón and Harvard researcher Todd Foglesong and cited in the BJA report: that a from-scratch approach may be necessary to create and manage the public-safety organization of the future.

The BJA report suggests that the stand-alone, single-discipline governmental department may be going the way of the dinosaur. The report offers several alternatives for structuring public-safety agencies, including an "integrated partnership organization" in which community goals are achieved within a multi-disciplinary environment that requires police to acquire a diverse professional background and skill set as well as the ability to collaborate with other agencies, disciplines and organizations.

It is often said that the important work of most organizations is conducted outside the traditional organizational structure, and many local governments adapt their existing structures through the use of multi-disciplinary task forces and interdepartmental teams. Others establish intradepartmental networks, particularly when service needs are too complex to address through a single discipline and require the involvement of several departments or agencies. These are steps in the right direction. Imagine, however, a local government organized around issues and results that are important to communities rather than around departments and functions.

The question for government leaders is this: How do we take advantage of the enormous power of specialization yet organize around the issues that matter most to those we serve? It stands to reason that if new ways of thinking about the impact of organizational structure and leadership can transform public-safety operations, then the same would be true for departments and agencies throughout all levels of government.

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