Essential Steps for Bending a Bureaucracy

The path to excellence is about setting goals, building a strong team and getting back-office functions under control.
February 2, 2017
By Paul Comfort  |  Contributor
Former administrator and CEO of the Maryland Transit Administration

If you lead a government agency, you may have encountered the same thing I did when I arrived as administrator and CEO of the Maryland Department of Transportation's Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) 18 months ago: overlapping layers of bureaucracy choking line managers' ability to implement changes and improvements. It didn't take long to see that this 3,300-employee transit agency -- the nation's 12th largest -- was in serious need of an overhaul. It was listless, with no real direction. Its systems were in disarray and stuck in the last century.

I believe that the first and most essential step on the road to organizational excellence is to know where you are going. So it's vitally important to institute a new "North Star" for your agency. Like the sailors of old who looked to a fixed object in the sky for direction, you need everyone in the boat to row in the same direction. At the MTA, our North Stars are to provide safe, efficient, reliable transit across Maryland, and to do so with world-class customer service.

Then you need to establish a way to measure your agency's progress toward achieving those goals. We instituted a new set of key performance indicators and put in place benchmarks that were communicated to all employees and celebrated when achieved.

The next step is to build your own team. Identifying the standouts among the agency's current management and bringing in new team members who are competent, dedicated and loyal are key to achieving success. You want leaders who buy into your vision and will work relentlessly to achieve it -- people you can delegate to and empower.

My next principle might make some defenders of the status quo squirm. I believe that to achieve significant progress in any organization, you have to break up the power of the "back office." In large agencies, administrative support functions such as human resources, finance, information technology, procurement, legal and communications too often accrue unjustified power that dictates decisions to line management through overwrought risk management and hardened policies and procedures. They decide the playing field and move boundaries inward, thus eliminating options for line management.

The power of these back-office functions should be minimized and redirected toward helping line management achieve operational objectives. This can be accomplished by breaking up large administrative-support departments and splitting them throughout the agency. The next step is to bring in leaders for them who understand that their prime objective is to help line management achieve operational success.

With institutional change on this scale, it is inevitable you are going to have conflict. As the leader, you should personally arbitrate significant conflicts between new and existing staff to eliminate ambiguity and between new and old ways of doing business. Always push toward action over inaction.

Then I believe you should champion a new, all-encompassing project to focus energies and attention and excite your employees. In Baltimore, we are rebooting and rebranding our entire transit system in a project developed by Gov. Larry Hogan called BaltimoreLink, the most significant reworking of our system in 50 years. And in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., we are building a new light-rail line that is the nation's largest project involving a public-private partnership.

Finally, you must communicate effectively to both external and internal stakeholders. Make yourself available to talk with front-line employees and report back to them on what you are doing to address their concerns. Leaders lead personally, and in the end bending a bureaucracy toward excellence is all about leadership.