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Complexity of Middle Management in Governmental Organizations

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nana Kusi Appiah
February 2, 2016

Managing governmental organizations can be more complex compared to the private sector. Not that managing private organizations is simple. However, the intricacies of multifaceted populations involved in government administration burgeons its complexity.

In the private sector, extensive focus of the chief executives and leaders are directed toward meeting the needs of the board of directors and stockholders. Meeting needs of such proprietors can most often be accomplished with minimal collaboration between the executives and the owners. Contrary to the private sector, a maximum interaction is required or expected between public administrators and their elected officials and citizens. A substantial part of this demand is most often by legislation requiring citizens’ involvement in their government.

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Coupled with the complexities emanating from citizen involvement in administration of government is also the interconnectivity of functions of various levels of government such as coordination of federal, state and local government for the administration of policies. This complexity within government calls for a dynamic leadership style that is able to employ pluralistic tools in accommodating various groups and levels of government. In their 2003 book, Leadership for the Common Good, Barbara Crosby and John Bryson discuss leading governmental organizations successfully, which requires a leader who is astute, dynamic and able to make decisions that satisfy the multifaceted groups involved in the administration of government.

It is no wonder that the complexity of managing government administration has spurred various literature regarding strategies for managing such institutions. One such book is Hal Rainey’s Understanding and Managing Public Organization. Although there are many studies on managing governmental organizations, one noticeable gap I have discovered is the lack of scholarship regarding the functions of middle management in governmental organizations. Having served in middle management roles in both medium and large governmental organizations, I have concluded that versatility in the role of middle management is critical and needs just as much attention as top leadership, if not more.

The need for extensive study and attention for providing tools for middle management in governmental organizations does not only emanate from personal experience, but also from numerous colleagues I have encountered who hold similar roles in various public organizations. Last April, I attended a management forum organized by the American Planning Association in Seattle. During forum discussions, most participants agreed middle management has unique challenges that are downplayed in either practice or public administration literature. The consensus centered on the responsibility of the complexity of managing front line employees, adopting strategies that motivate such employees and walking a fine line of accomplishing the tasks assigned from top management, which could be politically sensitive. These functions of middle management seem to align more with Paul Appleby’s theory of criticizing the staunch ideology of public administration dichotomy, promoted by Woodrow Wilson’s 1887 essay, “Science of Administration.”

My intended purpose of this essay was not to undermine the difficulty of top management in governmental administration, but to suggest scholarship that could focus on studying traits and skills critical in middle management functions in governmental organizations. I believe middle managers are the stem that connects the roots and leaves of governmental organization and underperformance of such middle managers can result in a malnourished organization. My hope with this article is to enervate our scholarly and practicing audience to tailor their studies and research toward helping middle management in government organizations optimally fulfill their functions.


Author: Nana Kusi Appiah is the development services manager for Adams County, Col., and is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. Nana holds a doctorate in public affairs from University of Texas at Dallas and a master’s degree in community and regional planning from Iowa State University. Email: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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