Using the Constructal Law to Redesign Government Agencies

Ever since President Wilson established modern public administration, there have been numerous attempts to restructure and reorganize Federal government agencies so that they operate 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 implement 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 ensure 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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Henry Brown

I too was involved in Gore’s reinvention, was also involved in Mr. Reagan’s “trashing” the entire federal system “The only good federal employee is a retired one”, and going way back in ancient history, I was in the field when the “new navy” was organized by admiral Zumwalt. And these only cover supposedly total reorganization… Have been involved in several local reinvention/reorganizations

Have lost at least 2 jobs due to reorganization in the name of improved efficiency …

As you touched on, at least indirectly, IMO it is all about empowering the troops! All of the reorganization(s) have only had varying degree of success because of the level of involvement of the field

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Henry – Thank you! Given the focus on performance management, I wonder how much consideration is given to the design of the agencies and if the employee has the tools/empowerment to do their best. You can take the best NASCAR driver in the last ten years but if you force them to drive in barely-functioning car from the 80s, can you realistically measure their performance against other drivers who have better cars?

Norman Wayne Scott Catledge

I started Federal Civil Service in 1977 and dropped out to return to school and start my own business; when it folded, I returned to CS under VA then transferred to USN. My biggest problem was a dimwitted idiot in DC who decided that we did not need the bookcases of regulatory assistance that agencies and CSC/OPM had provided. Instead, GS-09 and GS-11 PMS were directed to interpret and apply Title Five USC (i.e., practice law) but be certain that their interpretation of law did not disagree with OPM and agency policies. No government lawyer had the intestinal fortitude to object and many supervisors and managers thought that all government restrictions had been lifted. I always insisted that any deviations be put into writing and I kept a file including dated copies of my comments to the offending parties. I was in charge of reorganization at one large VAMC and saw little benefit; I was #2 on a contracting out (A76) team that saw great success in efficiency once I got the union in board. We beat the private opposition so badly on our laundry bid that no one wanted to bid on our other proposals. The biggest waste of time was all the efficiency training, pretending to empower the employee–none of it was worthwhile. As both an employee and as an experienced education evaluator, I feel qualified to comment.

Marc Overbeck

Comments from yet another participant in the Gore-era Reinvention (albeit from the side of state govenrment):

Our unique federal-state-local partnership (“The Oregon Option”) was based on a clear vision and mission. we constantly returned ourselves to that vision through bi-weekly calls. The caliber of the people engaged in “The Oregon Option” was high…and it was helpful that we keep assessing our ACTIONS (performance) against what we said we were out to accomplish.

Our impact? Well, we did create a pilot, that in turn, resulted in Congress changing the laws around Employment and Training Programs to allow more flexibility in exchange for delivering on performance outcomes.

But, the overall impact was like dropping a bucket of blue-dyed water in a lake…Over time, just absorbed into the larger body as “one more thing.”

To make a difference that really makes a difference, I believe we are going to have to either: 1) have WAY more blue-dyed water to dump and do so very often; or 2) alter the nature of the lake.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Marc – That is often the fate with initiatives in the Garbage Can model. Once in a while, things align for a good flow and innovations can occur. But, without sustaining the alignment, good initiatives disappear into the garbage can. Thanks for the example.