During a recent visit to Beijing, I took a side trip to see the Great Wall of China. It is indeed an amazing public works construction. It was begun in the 7th century B.C. and, as it exists today, is about 4,000 miles long. Our tour guide told us that since about 1950, the wall has been undergoing constant renovation and that some people didn’t like that because they wanted it to be as it originally was.
But then she laughed and said this was a silly objection because things fall apart, and if the wall weren’t maintained, eventually it would crumble away and disappear. She understood the law of entropy: All things deteriorate over time. That’s true not only of physical structures like the Great Wall, but also of organizations and institutions.
Back in 1976, I got a master’s in social work from West Virginia University. One of the enduring lessons of my social work training was the importance of balancing both task functions and maintenance functions in all human groups, whether they are as small as a married couple or as large as a big-city government.
The task functions are the work that the group has to get done. Two people sharing a household must get the rent paid, the meals prepared and the bathroom cleaned. A city government has to carry out a huge variety of tasks—there are more than 400 of them in Kansas City, where I was once mayor—from plowing snow to regulating land use to protecting public safety.
The maintenance functions are the work that must be done to hold the group together. For example, the married couple must work out differences and conflicts in ways that strengthen their bond. A city government has to attend to activities that build organizational capacity, such as adding training and technology, strengthening lines of communication, and working out internal strains and conflicts.
Organizational and institutional decay is an inevitable and ongoing process, so if the organization is to continue to function, organizational renewal—those maintenance functions—must be ongoing as well. Otherwise, things start to fall apart and organizations either fail to effectively carry out their purposes or cease to exist entirely. You don’t have to look hard to see evidence of these sorts of failures in government.
People run for elected office or take leadership appointments in government because they want to make a difference. Maintaining and strengthening the organization often seems the farthest thing from their minds, but balancing getting things done with building the organization’s capacity to do those things is critical.
The further up the organizational food chain you are, the more time and effort you must spend rebuilding and renewing the organization. The Great Wall remains a marvel that brings more than 25 million visitors a year because the Chinese recognize that it must be continually rebuilt. Government officials need to take a lesson from that and focus on rebuilding the organizations they lead.