7 Signs Your Local Government Is Dysfunctional

Leadership is about somehow getting people with different views to come together and execute on goals and plans they would never agree to on their own. Clearly, that’s not happening in many local governments.

Polarizing leadership and divisive management are real and entirely common issues that destroy organizational effectiveness and ultimately lead to operating failure in local governments big and small. Steve Tobak of CBS News.com recently wrote an article titled the 7 Signs of a Dysfunctional Company. I have taken Tobak’s seven signs and applied them to local government, where I believe they fit as well.

Here are seven signs that your local government is dysfunctional with polarizing leadership:

Ivory tower effect. When self-important elected officials make decisions in a vacuum or otherwise barricade themselves in their offices, that creates a nasty cultural divide between management and employees. I love the show Under Cover Boss, as it shows the importance of getting to know what your employees have to deal with when performing their jobs. Not enough elected officials understand or listen to employees as part of their decision making process.

Warring factions. In some communities feuds along political party lines are common place and accepted as just the way government works. Heck as I have talked about in a previous post Democrats and Republicans are not even allowed to sit next to each other. In the City of Buffalo all nine Councilmembers are Democrats and they are split into a 5-4 faction that fights over power and patronage in the third poorest city in the nation. Warring factions are dysfunctional, divisive and they fosters rivalry instead of cooperation.

Strategy du jour. When dysfunctional elected officials consistently overreact to a single data point and take the entire organization in a new direction. Often the result of hallway or ad-hoc meetings in obscure places and making decisions in the absence of those who are actually responsible for that sort of thing.

Analysis paralysis. When elected officials, especially from warring factions, chronically debate issues to death, going down one rat hole or knock-down, drag-out fight after another without actually making decisions because there’s no clear leadership to drive consensus.

Walk on water behavior. When leaders either consciously or subconsciously hoist certain groups up on pedestals while denigrating others. Besides being divisive, that also creates “walk on water” behavior where exalted groups aren’t subject to standard processes like budgeting, for example.

Silo mentality. When teams, departments or entire divisions act as if they’re independent from the rest , usually in a defensive “it’s us against them” sort of way when fighting for resources. Often the result of being denigrated by dysfunctional and divisive elected officials. A.k.a. “bunker mentality.”

Sacred cow. A pet project — usually supported by an elected official — that’s immune to criticism and the government’s standard processes. In other words, it continues to be funded long after it shouldn’t.

What do you think about these seven signs of dysfunction? Are there others that you would add to this list?


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Rita Leyva

This is a great post. I am fortunate in that the elected official I work for is not usually bothered with any of these issues. Once in a while, I see a bit of the ‘Walk on Water Behavior’ and it is so very destructive. As far as the county wide situation here, it is so dysfunctional due to the ‘Silo mentality’ being an ever-present factor. Every department in this county is plagued with that syndrome. We don’t share ideas, we don’t share resources – fiscal or human. So much talent goes to waste rather than being shared with other departments. Such a waste. Our tax payers deserve better….