Are Large Public Organizations Manageable?

I wanted to share an article I read in graduate school and see if anyone has some insights to share with the GovLoop community. The article is titled, Are Large Public Organizations Manageable? The piece is written by Donna Shalala, who served 8 years as the Secretary of Health and Human Services under Bill Clinton and is currently the President of Miami University. She received her Masters and PhD from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

I read the article in my Public Organizations and Management class, here is the intro to the article:

Americans like many big things: cars, open spaces, movies. But we don’t like big bureaucracies. Americans think that large government organizations are too complex, too impersonal, too inefficient, and cost too much. They are partly right. But at the same time that Americans express a dislike of bureaucracy, they also treasure many of the programs that government runs. The paradox is illustrated by the comment of one individual: “Keep your bureaucratic hands off of my Medicare.”

This paradox was very much on my mind in 1993 when the president asked me to become the chief executive officer (CEO) of one of the largest government organizations in the world. This was not my first encounter with the federal government; I had already served in the Carter administration and had close contact with government in my jobs as the president of two leading public universities. But I knew that taking over the leadership of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a department whose budget, at that time, consumed 40 percent of federal spending-would be unlike anything I ever did before.

Donna has a really interesting background and I really enjoyed this piece. You can check out the entire article here, but Donna continues to provide 7 strategies for leading large public organizations.

Lesson 1: Know the Culture of Your Organization

Lesson 2: Find Ways to Assure that Appropriate Coordination Takes Place

Lesson 3: Don’t Overlook the Needs and Abilities of the Career Public Service

Lesson 4: Choose the Best and Let Them Do Their Jobs

Lesson 5: Stitch Together a Loyal Team

Lesson 6: Stand up and Fight for the People Who Work for You

Lesson 7: Set Firm Goals and Priorities and Stick With Them

What are some further lessons you may have? Anything Donna may have missed? Any great management stories?

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Carol Davison

The coast guard has one admiral for 1,000 coasties, and there are trained to within an inch of their life so their risk their lives to save those who are shipwreaked, often in horrible weather. At many Federal organizations there is an SES for every 30! Obviously there must be empowerment for the guard to perform effectively.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Interesting. I believe that large public organizations are manageable but you need to overcome several barriers inherent in such a structure. I wrote a paper on this that you might find useful.


Great article – some good nuggets like

There are also times when it’s actually helpful for an organiza- tion to have more than one identity. When NIH, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Public Health Service all line up in favor of a par- ticular policy, say, banning the marketing of tobacco to children, that policy will more likely be accepted by Congress, the public- and, we hope-the court

Mark Hammer

Once again, I cannot recommend this book highly enough:

The author’s (Larry Terry) contention is that what allows a public institution to do what it does, effectively, is its authoritativeness, not just its legal authorities. Authoritativeness, in turn, comes from the organization having a “self”, being true to it, and being true to it in pretty much the same way throughout the org.

In truth, no one “manages” any sort of large organization, public or private. Once it gets big enough you guide it, and presume that the components (whom you should be in a position to trust) will do exactly what you would have done, were you able to manage each component. Large public organizations can flounder and underperform when their identity becomes diffuse, and the various components are not on the same page.

One side of me would suggest that you don’t ever want to let organizations get too big or sprawling because the odds of them losing their identity and their way increase. At the same time, good leadership ought to be able to overcome that challenge. But it has to be really good leadership with a clear vision. All too often, public institutions are prevented from doing that by political interference from those whose vision for their partisan interests trumps the vision for the organization. It’s like trying to run a company whose investors are all panicky and need constant assurance. How the hell does anyone forge and communicate a vision under those circumstances?

Maurice Alexander

Managing any structure large or small always comes down to priorities. Governments set very high level broad based “priorities” that do not direct their civil service in any meaningful way. Aside from the “hot button” issues, the civil service is always left to decipher or innovate what is best based on these “guidelines” and the result is inconsistent, overlapping, redundant policies. This is common in all governments.

Clearly defining priorities beyond the buzz word level will allow for more focused research and smaller more efficient strucutures because there is no need to have staff running off in different directions trying to achieve conflicting goals that all fall under the same “priority”.