Does Gov Have Too Many Middle Managers?

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This topic contains 8 replies, has 4 voices, and was last updated by  Terrence Hill 5 years, 4 months ago.

  • Author
  • #179619

    David B. Grinberg

    Even in today’s environment of fiscal austerity gov-wide, there still appears to be an abundance of middle managers. Some smaller offices many even have more supervisors than employees.


    1) Does the gov have too many middle managers?

    2) Does your agency or office have too many middle managers?

    3) Are middle managers a roadblock or asset to streamlining bureaucracy, cutting red tape, and improving gov operations generally?

    4) If YOU are a middle manager what’s it like in the current budget climate?

    Below are related articles (while mainly about the private sector, also applicable to public sector).

    • Wall Street Journal article: “What It’s Like Being a Middle Manager Today?”
    • LinkedIn article: “7 Tips for Surviving Life as a Middle Manager
    • Wall Street Journal video: “Managers Sound Off on Life in the Middle


    All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.

  • #179635

    Terrence Hill

    Yes…Yes…Yes…The National Performance Review pointed this out, but we still fill our middle-level management positions before we fill our front-line positions. This was reaffirmed by many in this week’s SAVE Award submissions. We STILL have too many layers of supervision, deputies, and siloed organizations to be truly effective and efficient. Management layers are ALWAYS inhibitors of creativity, innovation, productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness.

  • #179633

    David B. Grinberg

    Thanks for that awesome reply, Terry!

    Let’s not forget to credit Al Gore who launched the NPR, which then changed names to The National Partnership for Reinventing Government. Gore launched this grounbreaking White House initiative as Vice President during the early years of the Clinton Admin. I remember this well because I worked at OMB back then.

    Regarding mid-level managers, here are some more excellent links from the WSJ project:

    Personally, I think the question is contingent upon the type of manager. For example, a mid-level manager can be a major asset to an organization if he/she empowers and motivates employees with a results-only approach, including flexible work schedules, telework, etc.

    However, if the official is a micro-manager or “clock watcher” then that’s bad for the organization because it usually results in lower employee morale, increased absenteeism, and poor/average work products.

  • #179631

    Peter Sperry

  • #179629

    David B. Grinberg

    Good morning Peter,

    Thanks so much for that hilarious cartoon. I nearly fell out of my chair laughing!

    Well, look at the bright side, at least Dilbert works in the private sector and not for the government — perhaps we can take some comfort in that (lol).

    By the way, I love his suit but what’s up (no pun intended) with that hair, or whatever it is?

    Thanks again, Peter!

  • #179627

    Mark Hammer

    Yep, today’s Dilbert was uncomfortably close to reality…especially the vague objectives part.

    The growing omnipresence of middle managers is a reflection of a couple of things, I think. First, whether public or private sector, large organizations are transmuting by leaps and bounds, and the very idea of a single middle manager who can keep track of what is going on in multiple work units whose work is under constant transformation seems preposterous. Add to that the naive belief in the notion of the generic manager, and it quickly seems unreasonable to force one person to learn all about so many different things. In other words, if you don’t have anyone managing who has actually watched those business lines evolve over time, and understands them, then it is best to just stick one manager in charge of each specific business line.

    The growth of middle management is also a reflection of what I like to call the cult of accountabalism we see around us these days. One component of accountabilism is what many folks like to call reporting burden. So, in order to make sure all that tax money is being spent wisely, there is an insistence on having someone in middle-management churning out the reports on how the money is being spent, as well as overseeing all those people working on all those reports. Greater emphasis on accountability inevitably leads to a thicker middle layer, IMO.

    A cynical side of me might also suggest that the growth of middle management is a way to diffuse responsibility. That is, all those folks in the middle shield all those folks at the top from being held accountable (another component of the cult of accountabilism) for decisions they were too underinformed and overcommitted to make or be aware of.

    Finally, when cuts have to be made, it is the middle managers who are left, and the underlings who are cut. Like hair getting caught in the bathroom sink drain, they start to add up. Maybe it’s because their severance packages are too costly to let them go. Maybe it’s because they’re all friends from meetings and can’t face cutting each other. Who knows. Whatever the case, it can often happen that when middle manage X is somehow out of employees, someone higher up will find a spot for them somewhere else within the organization, and a work unit that used to have one manager, is now split into two and has two managers.

    I guess the $64,000 question is how one identifies when an “appropriate” mass of middle management has been reached within an organization that allows for effective oversight yet still permits good connections between the very top and the very bottom. I don’t know that anyone has a particularly good answer for that.

  • #179625

    Mark Hammer

    I didn’t really answer David’s main question, did I? Are there too many middle managers?

    I suppose it would depend on how much autonomy they and staff had. Once the layers of accountability and approval start to pile up, I’d say you’ve hit the “too many” mark.

    We’ve had a question in our federal employee survey for 13 years that asks employees whether they feel that “the quality of my work suffers because of…too many approval stages”. In the most recent (2011) survey, about 53% of managers/supervisors said “often” or “always”, while 43% of non-supervisory employees said the same.

    There was a steady increase with tenure in the proportion of public servants who said that layers of approval was bogging down their work. That may be because those with more tenure are more likely to be managers/supervisors themselves, but it may also be because they have less patience for having to wait for someone’s approval, given that they have been competently doing their job for X number of years. I’ll note that both of these patterns (tenure and manager/non-manager) have held constant over the the last few survey cycles.

    Response patterns also varied by what sort of work you were involved in. Folks working in legal services, or in access-to-information/privacy areas were least likely to say that layers of approval were burdensome, while those working in procurement, real property management, or communications were most likely to say it was a problem. Kind of makes sense. If you’re not the final word on something, then having a lot of additional middle managers can be “too many”, because they will all have to sign off or insist on being consulted. Of course, I have no idea how middle-management-heavy those different kinds of employees are, just that they don’t seem to be equally as bugged by it.

    All of this just goes to say that there are a variety of perspectives on the matter to be had, with some folks more likely to perceive a glut of middle managers, as a function of the consequences it has for them personally, and other folks puzzled as to why the first bunch see a problem.

  • #179623

    David B. Grinberg

    Thanks so much for responding, Mark. Your unique insights and analysis are always very much appreciated.

    Regarding the “$64,000 question” what about private sector business/management models that may recommend a ratio of middle managers to employees based upon the industry or organization, its strategic goals and mission?

    Shouldn’t gov have something along these lines — perhaps some agencies do — to maximize human capital talent, including among middle management?

    Or perhaps this should be addressed in agency’s specific strategic plans. Either way, there must be a strategic approach to this question that “trims the fat” — for lack of a better term — to boost organizational efficiency and effectiveness by striking the appropriate balance between the ratio of middle managers and the employees they supervise.

    Hopefully, some HR folks on this site can provide further info.

    Thoughts? Thanks again.

  • #179621

    Mark Hammer

    Regarding the “$64,000 question” what about private sector business/management models that may recommend a ratio of middle managers to employees based upon the industry or organization, its strategic goals and mission?”

    Last night’s Daily Show had much to say about the number of vice-presidents at Goldman Sachs, but we’ll set that aside.

    I think the stability of the organization’s mandate and activities will play a big role in that ratio. In past, I’ve mentioned a New Zealand report that examined the stability of accountability frameworks across federal agencies, as a function of the concreteness of their goals and deliverables. Those agencies with goals and outcomes that were more concrete, and easy to measure, had fairly stable accountability/performance-measurement frameworks, where those whose goals and outcomes were more diffuse and abstract kept changing the way they measured performance seemingly every single year.

    To the extent that middle managers are not only a means to supervise subordinates, but a mechanism to keep upper management informed, I think that if the agency or agency branch is doing pretty much the same thing the same way, year in year out, it will be an easier task to identify the “right balance” of managerial oversight at different levels and across the agency/branch. As well, the more stable the staff over time (less turnover and internal churn), the easier and more comfortable it becomes to allow staff autonomy, and insist on less oversight. If it is an organization whose purpose is either ill-defined, or constantly being redefined (an organization with an identity problem, and sufficiently unsure of itself as to keep staff on short tethers), chances are that magic number/ratio will be much harder to peg down. It is easy to imagine segments of both the private and public sector where each of those ends of the continuum are true.

    But, to reiterate your point, let’s hear from some of the HR folks.

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