Restructuring Washington

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At the Bellingham City Club on Wednesday, Norman Rice, the former mayor of Seattle, spoke about public process. It was an enlightening conversation for all that were in the room, as a politician (albeit former) clearly articulated many issues around government process. I could write a lot on the public process piece, but two other insights were important as well and parallel many of my own experiences and thoughts.

One of the problems of large bureaucracies (whether business or government) is the stove pipe organizations they have that limit innovation, communication, and the ability to solve complex problems. The other problem Rice articulated was about where power is held and how an organization will hold on to power, even if results are better when they give it up. He repeated a conversation he’d had with a federal cabinet member who, when presented with a new way of organizing, in effect stated, it is my budget and I am going to keep it. Senior executives (again in business and government) will make decisions based on their own personal power and preferences, and go against the greater good. He also told the story of Washington State legislators who would not cede control over their transportation budget to let regional governments solve transportation issues. In both instances, protecting their turf was more important than solving problems.

Washington State has a stove pipe organization, pictured in image 1. This style of organization takes critical government functions and creates silos which limit the ability to solve complex problems that cross organizations. Occasionally the state government will try to cross silos to solve issues, for instance, the Puget Sound Partnership. But overall the state government will never solve critical issues like the environment, education, poverty and job creation, simply because they do not have an organizational structure that will allow resources, both financial and human, to be directed so as to solve them.

Fundamentally, the government has three primary responsibilities. The first is children and making sure they are not only ready to learn, but that by the time they are 18, they have a solid education and life skills that will allow them to get jobs. Ensuring children are ready to learn is not the only function of local school districts, they must also concern themselves with things like poverty levels, parental support (or other appropriate mentorship), and health care access. We expect school districts to make sure children are ready to learn, but they do not have the financial resources to deal with all the issues that might hinder a child’s readiness. Image 2 shows a new organizational structure to give school districts the primary responsibility for readiness to learn and then gives them access to all the state’s resources to help them in that effort.

The second responsibility of government is economic vitality. Jobs must be available and businesses must be able to function so they can create new jobs. Again, the current structure forces businesses to deal with all sorts of departments, each working against each other to promote economic vitality. Aligning all those functions, like Labor and Industries, Ecology, Commerce, higher education, and Agriculture and Transportation, allows the state to work with businesses to make sure they have both the resources and ability to successfully create good-paying jobs as well as people ready to fill them.

The last responsibility is livability, which is the community aspect of our state. Individuals need workable housing, health care, transportation, etc. to have a good quality of life. The livability portion of the state’s responsibility should be controlled by local governments and state resources should be directed by local government as a way to help them be more successful. This is another instance where power would be better served at the local level instead of the state level. Norman Rice mentioned his idea of giving neighborhood organizations more power and authority in the budgeting process and having more say over police, parks, etc. This could be equivalent at the state level where taxes may be levied, but the state should not control how they are spent, that is left to local governments.

Certainly there are issues to be worked out, most notably to have some organizations with responsibilities in multiple areas (like transportation and social services), but those functions can easily be divided to provide necessary focus, and then cross-coordinated where needed. This also requires politicians and government bureaucrats to give up their kingdoms for the good of society. Considering they continually ask citizens to make sacrifices for the common good, maybe some politicians can follow their own advise and give up their turf to those who could better serve the citizens.

We can talk all we want about government funding and increasing the amounts for education, poverty, transportation, etc., but we will be talking until we are all dead and nothing will change because the funding level is not the problem; the structure is. Fix the organizational systems and then you can fix the problems. This is change we can really believe in.

About Craig Mayberry

Closed Account • Member since Jan 17, 2008

While writing his articles from 2008 to 2011, Craig lived near Lynden and taught at both Whatcom Community College and Western Washington University. He was active in politics and ran for public [...]

Comments by Readers

Dick Conoboy

Oct 30, 2009

An excellent summary of the problem.  Over 10 years ago I worked as a Re-invention Associate for the National Partnership for Re-inventing Government in the Office of the Vice-President (Al Gore) where we attempted, with some success, to convince federal managers to recreate the manner in which they did business to include merging with other organizations. They howled like stuck pigs.  Those who did begin to examine their processes soon discovered savings and efficiencies. Until then, federal managers were not valued for saving money and reducing their budgets.  We (I was a resource manager for over 10 years) all went through the end of the year spending spree so as not to lose monies for the next year.  All was puffery in the budget and personnel world. I assume that after the Clinton/Gore years, any advances we had made have since been lost.

Few organizations, once created, are ever eliminated even though there are such activities as the Quarterly Defense Review at the Pentagon (that I had to undergo several times) during which each office has to justify its existence. Attending these sessions was better than Reality TV as managers all but dissembled to justify the unjustifiable.  I admit that I even resorted to slight of hand [following orders, of course, from my boss :-)] by stating our budget in billions of dollars as did agencies with large budgets.  However, our yearly budget was about $15 million.  I told them that cutting us would only save $.015 billion.  That was under their radar.  We were saved.


Dick Conoboy

Oct 30, 2009

Forgive my mis-statement above.  The Pentagon conducts the Quadrennial Defense Review.  If they did it quarterly, there would not be time for much else, although some might see that as an improvement in itself.