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Eliminating Silos in Government

The problem with silos is that they cause people to ignore the big picture, and instead, focus insularly.

On long car trips as a child, I loved to look at the farm houses and silos that dotted the rolling hills of Maryland and Virginia. As an adult, I still enjoy looking at such bucolic farm scenes. What I don't like are silos in government.

Good management in state and local government demands that people work together in pursuit of important -- often cross-cutting -- goals, such as lower crime, improved education and faster commutes. Surprisingly, despite many state and local officials lamenting the problem of silos in their governments, many still exist.

The problem with silos is that they cause people to focus insularly on the specific mission contained within their agency. For example, fighting crime doesn't just involve the public safety department, but also human services agencies and education departments. If fighting crime is a priority, then why are efforts towards that goal often scattered across separate agencies that don't necessarily collaborate and communicate with each other? Government must ensure that the structure and procedures necessary to see the big picture and accomplish the broad goals are in place and enabled.

To truly understand the problems caused by silos in government, one needs to look no further than state and local economic-development initiatives. Virtually every state and local government has an economic-development agency devoted to encouraging businesses to locate or stay in their state or locality. The economic-development agency director and his or her employees focus on gathering resources for their department to use to entice businesses. They may perform their specific mission extremely well. Unfortunately, this activity -- sometimes referred to as "smokestack chasing" -- overlooks the importance of other important "quality of life" factors in retaining or attracting businesses. Education, taxes, crime, culture and health care are also factors that figure into company location decisions. Therefore, activities of departments responsible for these issue areas should be considered essential to the creation of a positive environment for economic development.

At the very least, government should be structured to ensure that people working in various silos are working together, communicating and pursuing broader goals together. Several states provide particularly good examples of this. When South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds came to office in January 2003, he realized that the many agencies tasked with promoting South Dakota as a place to live and do business needed to be combined to pursue this goal cohesively. He created a Department of Tourism and State Development from several disparate agencies. To do this, the economic-development agency was removed from the Executive Management Finance Office and the history, arts and cultural-affairs activities were shifted from the Department of Education. He then combined these functions with the separate agencies that handled tourism and tribal affairs. According to South Dakota Finance and Management Commissioner Jason Dilges, the change has proved positive with the result that everyone in those agencies is "in the spotlight of promoting South Dakota."

Combining agencies and departments isn't always necessary if a structure is created to allow agencies to communicate and collaborate in achieving their goals. In 1995, Maine Governor Angus King created a "Children's Cabinet" to ensure that the various Maine departments that provided services for children were coordinating their activities. The purpose of the new Children's Cabinet was to "collaborate and promote the concept of a seamless service delivery system for children and families and the need to pool funding to maximize limited resources." The Cabinet's membership -- which included commissioners of Health and Human Services; Education, Behavioral and Developmental Services; Corrections; and Labor and Public Safety -- developed a "common vision" that created a "coordinated, community-based system of services for children and families." The success of the Children's Cabinet is proven in part by the fact that the legislature made it permanent by statute in 2000.

Since each state and locality is different, no one structure may be perfect for all. The structure is not important, however. What is important is creating bridges across silos, improving communication between departments and ensuring that they are working efficiently toward the same goals. For, ultimately, all public servants have the same goal: to improve the quality of life for citizens.

Executive director and CEO of the National Governors Association
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