Nov 12

The Constructional Law for Agencies (The Foundations for the New Public Administration Theory)

Another GovLoop post that explains how a physical law can be used to design agencies.


Ever since President Wilson established modern public administration, there have been many attempts to restructure and reorganize Federal government agencies so that they work more efficiently while more effectively delivering services. I was in the Federal government during Gore’s Reinventing Government project and now I am back just in time for the Obama administration's strategy to use the latest technologies to better deliver services. There is a great deal of work by smart people who have plenty of suggestions on how to make government work better and cost less. So, what do I have to offer?

Just a couple of observations:

  1. Public agencies still suffer from four major problems that have plagued their operations since the beginning of modern public administration:
    • The Repair Shop Dilemma – it is difficult for many public agencies to plan their work and develop efficient processes because the uncertainties of funding, mission focus, and executive leadership. Much of what the agency does and how it operates is decided by Congress, the current Presidential Administration, and the immediate concerns of the citizens.

      Like an auto repair shop, much of the agency work is determined by what arrives in the garage that morning. Now, this is not true for all agencies and many do a good job of long-range planning. Even so, the yearly budget cycle and the uncertainties around elections prevent building sustainable long-term processes.

    • Street-level BureaucracyLipsky described how the government employees who carry out and enforce the laws and public policies often do so in ways that headquarters did not intend. This inconsistency can lead to charges of unfairness and waste resources. There have always been problems of coordination between headquarters and field offices.
    • Policy Alienation – Closely related to street-level bureaucracy (although it can apply to headquarters) is the concept of policy alienation. Essentially, it is the belief by government employees that they cannot make the policy they are charged to manage. This could be because of perceptions of powerlessness on a strategic, tactical, and/or operational level. It could also be because the policy is meaninglessness in terms of societal impact or doesn’t meet the clients’ needs.
    • Garbage Can Model – This was identified in 1972 and describes how agency structures tend to disconnect problems, solutions, and decision makers from each other. You have probably encountered this as agency silos which prevent knowledge sharing and lead to agencies creating redundant solutions to external problems.

    Resolving these four problems will greatly help in reforming government agencies. Thus, the second observation.

  2. Use the Constructal Law to design the organizational structures of government agencies:
    Adrian Bejan developed this physical law in 1996 when he observed that both inanimate and animate systems evolve in such a way to make it easier for flows to travel through the system and for the system to travel more easily through its environment. When you review the four problems listed above, you can see that the inability to develop good flow structures for external awareness, knowledge, resources, and processes is the common theme. In some cases, that can mean flattening the organization and creating informal networks for better knowledge sharing. In other cases, a hierarchy is more effective in dispersing resources and managing processes.

    The key is to take a “flow-first” perspective in designing an organizational structure. This is why I question the automatic answer of flattening the organization and discarding the hierarchy. Unless the knowledge flow, the resource flow, the decision flow, and process flows are considered first, you really don’t know if your proposed organizational design is the most effective structure for the agency. A flow-first perspective also requires a periodic review to make sure that the flows have not become blocked by new demands or constraints on the agency.

As I stated before, there has been a lot of brainpower devoted to making government work better and with fewer resources. To this debate, I offer two observations in the hopes of spurring some good discussion in the GovLoop community.

Disclaimer: All opinions are mine and do not reflect the views of my employers and any organizations that I am a member of and should not be construed as such.

Bejan, A., & Zane, J.P. (2012). Design in nature: How the Constructal law governs evolution in biology, physics, technology, and social organizations. New York: Doubleday.

A video where Bejan explains the Constructal Law. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTbB0Vsynjc

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