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Strategic Public Management
Best Practices from Government and Nonprofit Organizations
By Howard R. Balanoff, Warren Master
Management Concepts PressCopyright © 2010 Management Concepts, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Planning and Managing Core Mission Functions at the Municipal Level
James H. Thurmond
How do local government managers respond when confronted with a major problem? Are they internally or externally focused? Is their response instinctively based upon their organization's functional and process-based work formats? For example, if street pothole repair sequentially requires a street repair policy, a budget line item, and a work order signed by a supervisor before the repair work occurs, do these formalities blind the public works team to seeing challenging problems that do not resemble its own functions and processes? Or does the team look outward, beyond the organization, to scan the landscape and the horizon? Does it identify and diagnose problems, striving to understand their contours, causes, and interrelated parts, and does it determine whether the problem is routine or challenging before deciding upon the proper response?
The best practice for responding to a major problem — which may or may not represent a daunting challenge — is conceptualizing the problem before selecting a strategic response. Managers must conceptualize problems from a perspective that is both internally and externally focused.
What Is Conceptualization?
Conceptualization of a problem requires the ability to consider a problem from both internal and external perspectives. Internal conceptualization is not difficult because managers instinctively react to external events by focusing internally to protect their organizations and because most managers prefer their own organizations to provide public services directly. Consequently, managers more readily conceptualize problems internally.
Local government managers work in hierarchically structured public organizations shaped by typical characteristics of bureaucracy: vertical control, top-down communications, standardized procedures, and an internal focus on core functions such as public safety, utilities, streets, drainage, and public health. They strive to protect these core functions from external disturbances in the organizational environment, such as political turmoil, poor economic conditions, interference from other governmental organizations, and issues stemming from high uncertainty, by ensuring that the internal bureaucratic structures for providing the core public services, including standard operating procedures and routines, hierarchical authority, funding mechanisms, and easy access to organizational resources, remain intact.
Local government managers tend to prefer providing services that are internally produced by their own organizations, but this preference has been changing over the last three decades. Local governments have begun to rely more on externally produced services provided by private businesses, other governmental entities, and nonprofits. For example, very few city services were externally produced until the early 1980s; today, more than 40 percent of city services are provided externally.
Internally produced services, however, remain managers' instinctive mode of delivery. That is, they consider the city organization as the producer of services first, before contemplating external mechanisms. This is not surprising because managers certainly have more control and power within their own organizations via hierarchical authority than they do outside their organizations. They also know that providing services directly is usually more efficient and less time consuming because the necessary processes, rules, authority, and resources — all of which facilitate managerial control — are already in place.
But by looking beyond the organization when problem-solving, managers avoid being locked into an internal focus that precludes the consideration of external solutions to a problem. Conceptualization enables managers to better understand whether their organizational capacities match up to the problem at hand and to determine whether there is a need for network partners outside their organizations that can help address the problem. Once the problem is identified either as one that can be handled internally or as a daunting challenge requiring external resources, the appropriate strategic managerial action can be readily chosen (see Figure 1-1).
Solving Wicked Problems
Managers are confronted daily by challenges to their core services. Some challenges are relatively routine but still of sufficient magnitude to test the city's capacity. A three-alarm fire, a major water line break affecting a large section of the city, or a crime wave in the business sector are all problems that could strain a city's ability to respond. Usually, routine managerial practices and internal standard operating procedures, policies, guidelines, and existing resources are sufficient to manage even major problems. In other words, the single public organization can handle the challenge without outside assistance. Beyond these routine challenges, however, are the daunting challenges that are frequently described as "wicked" because they have no apparent solution, they are multi-jurisdictional, and they seem to reoccur over time.
Handling wicked challenges is beyond the capacity of the single public organization and often transcends the legal territorial boundaries of the single organization. Wicked challenges are best addressed through a networked, multiorganizational approach external to the single organization. A network is an active, organized collaboration of organizations that accomplishes some agreed-upon purpose, and its key characteristic is interdependence between the participating organizations to perform a task. It is essential for the manager to determine if the organization is truly experiencing a wicked problem before he or she can adequately address it. The manager must be able to conceptualize the problem both internally and externally, to switch between internal and external contexts, and to practice collaborative management.
Distinguishing Among Wicked Problems
Wicked problems are usually easily identified. They are multi- jurisdictional; for example, a natural disaster or metropolitan-wide traffic congestion are both wicked problems. Alternatively, higher levels of government or the courts may declare that a wicked problem exists and demand an external strategic response. This leaves local governments with little freedom to determine whether the problem is wicked or not.
Frequently, ambiguous wicked problems are the most problematic. They are less obvious at first glance because they appear to be routine and simple. Accordingly, managers' perspective on such problems is limited and project-oriented, and they do not recognize that the issues at hand are interrelated and intergovernmental, especially in a metropolitan area.
Obvious Wicked Problem
Most public managers understand that a hurricane is a wicked problem and that they must look both internally and externally for responses to potential hurricane damage. Most realize that they should be prepared to handle most problems internally for the first 72 hours after the storm, then look externally, either for relief or to provide relief to others.
Those who take only an internal focus might be prepared for the first few hours of a hurricane and its immediate aftermath, but recovery would be hampered by the lack of external collaborative networks involving such entities as the county, private utility companies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the state, nonprofits, for-profits, and neighboring cities. On the other hand, those whose focus is exclusively external might expect the state or federal government to provide relief right away, just as New Orleans managers did after Hurricane Katrina. For an obvious wicked problem like a hurricane, managers can skip deciding whether a wicked problem exists. They should immediately begin conceptualizing the problem from a combined internal and external perspective, then decide on a strategic response.
Mandated Wicked Problem
The EPA required local governments to prepare and adopt a stormwater management program that included all stakeholders in the planning process, ensuring a broader organizational perspective for the plan. Under a mandate like this, managerial conceptualization and discretion are not needed to determine if a wicked problem exists or to choose an internal or external approach, because both the wicked problem and an external strategic response are mandated.
Ambiguous Wicked Problem
When the wicked problem is neither obvious nor mandated, external conceptualization is more important than ever because the manager must identify the parameters of the problem beyond his or her organization's boundaries. For example, the City of Southside Place in metropolitan Houston, Texas, planned a street reconstruction project that could have been considered just a simple project with limited ramifications. The city might have failed to conceptualize the external aspects of the problem, but fortunately, the city's consulting engineer also worked for the neighboring City of West University Place and had performed a drainage study for both cities. Based on the engineer's information about other jurisdictions, the city managers of both cities took a more holistic view and determined that the simple street project was more complex than it seemed. They realized that both cities could benefit if a larger drainage system planned by the Harris County Flood Control District were included in the Southside Place street project. There were also drainage advantages to be gained by both cities by replacing a bridge that belonged to the City of Houston.
As the project evolved, Houston recognized an opportunity to replace a major water transmission line along the Southside Place street. Ultimately, what began as a simple street project for only Southside Place became a partnership with West University Place, the City of Houston, and the Harris County Flood Control District — and a cost-effective solution that benefited all parties was implemented.
If Southside Place had undertaken the street work without collaborating with the other entities, the work would have amounted to nothing but a costly interim solution. The street would have been demolished and rebuilt twice more — once for the larger stormwater drainage line and once for Houston's water transmission line. What seemed like a simple project when all the facts were not known became a wicked problem requiring external strategic actions from the public managers of several governmental entities.
As discussed previously, an external focus is not easy. Local government managers are implementers who naturally look to their single organizations to solve problems. This inherent internal focus can lead to failure to understand the problem, its external dimensions, and the limits of organizational capacity. Consequently, managers miss potential external solutions and increase their potential for failure.
Failure to Conceptualize Externally
An example of managerial failure to properly conceptualize a problem occurred in Missouri City, Texas, in the late 1990s. Over a 25-year period, the city had allowed the incorporation of 18 special districts, called municipal utility districts (MUDs), within the city limits. These MUDs provided water and wastewater services to more than 50,000 residents — with what the city considered to be an abundance of duplicative services and inefficiencies. When the city council considered consolidating the 18 MUDs, I recommended the single city organization approach — that is, an internal organizational focus based on the ideas that bigger is better (and "bigger" allowed economies of scale) and that the city could do it all.
This idea had disastrous consequences for the city council (three council members were defeated for reelection), and the mayor ultimately withdrew the policy proposal from the agenda because of its divisiveness in the community. Basically, the city pushed the policy proposal over the opposition of the MUD elected officials and some very vocal citizens and did not consider a collaborative solution to the problem.
If I had conceptualized the problem externally, I would have better understood the political realities at hand: the opinions of the almost 100 elected officials on the 18 MUD boards and numerous MUD consultants, as well as opposition from citizens, who considered the plan to be another example of "big government." I had conceptualized the solution strictly as an internal city operation that could be absorbed into the existing city organization as a separate department with improved economies of scale. While technically I may have been right regarding economies of scale and savings, my internal conceptualization and its single organizational approach was not feasible for such a politically complex situation. This was certainly a failure to properly conceptualize the problem.
Small Problems and Conceptualization
Conceptualizing also applies to small problems and can facilitate greater success. In Uvalde, Texas, a nonprofit agency, the Uvalde Recreational Council (URC), had long organized and managed a summer youth program in conjunction with the city. Initially, from an internally focused perspective, I thought that using the URC for such a limited, seasonal purpose was burdensome and time-consuming for the city of Uvalde. When I conceptualized the URC's role from an external, broader community perspective, I reached a different conclusion. Because the URC had credibility in the community, its involvement encouraged and facilitated community participation. It also was eligible for United Way funds, which could be combined with city funds.
While this was not a wicked problem in one sense — the city did not lack the resources to address the problem — my collaborative response helped address a deeper sustainability challenge. That is, I had no hierarchical control over the URC, interdependence existed between the city and the URC, and I used collaborative management skills. From a strictly internal organizational perspective, the city could have run the summer program alone, but at increased financial cost and with less community support. By conceptualizing the external environment, I found external benefits that outweighed the benefits of providing services internally.
Managers' Capacity to Implement Solutions
Conceptualization of the problem and the selection of the best strategic response, whether internal, external, or combined, are not sufficient unless managers possess two prerequisite capacities: the managerial agility and collaborative skills to implement the solution.
Once managers identify the context in which they are managing, they must adjust their roles and behaviors accordingly. They must work inside the organization and outside the organization. They cannot manage with only an internal management mindset or an external mindset. They must be able to transition between these internal and external contexts and to work in each specific context, sometimes simultaneously. Agile managers strategically match their responses with the organizational context by integrating competing viewpoints, maintaining low levels of dogmatism, and being open-minded.
It is no longer sufficient, if it ever was, for a manager to possess only internal organizational skills. Collaborative skills help the manager work external to his or her organization, where there is little hierarchical authority and the manager's internal organizational authority has limited impact. Collaborative management is basically the process of facilitating and operating in networked arrangements to solve problems that cannot be solved or easily solved by a single organization.
Excerpted from Strategic Public Management by Howard R. Balanoff, Warren Master. Copyright © 2010 Management Concepts, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Management Concepts Press.
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