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When Elected Officials Are Not at Fault

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

By Richard Clay Wilson, Jr.
May 22, 2015

It is axiomatic in the field of public administration that “policy directions” from the political top matter more than anything else. Sound policy directions lead to good outcomes. Unsound directions cause things to go awry. We rarely contemplate how institutions of government themselves render directions from the top—sound or unsound—much less how they come to operate in ways that have nothing to do with the priorities or directions of elected officials.

Nevertheless, we are witnessing troubling institutional failures at all levels of government that cannot be traced to elected officials. Consider the debacles at police departments across the country. Consider the lapses of the Secret Service, the Veteran’s Administration and Atlanta’s schools. Everyone who reads a newspaper or watches the news can cite examples of institutional failures on the part of government that do not implicate elected officials.


There is no single or simple cause of such failures. Yet, we are continually confronted with organizational cultures that work against institutional performance and improvement. Problematic police department cultures are in evidence across the country. The Veterans Affairs Department and the Secret Service have notorious organizational cultures. Every government professional knows of organizations and departments that deserve awards for unproductive cultures.

Such cultures are not intentionally created. They evolve over time. They reflect deeply embedded perspectives, values and practices. They are powerfully self-sustaining.

Even respectable and benign cultures can stand in the way of accomplishment and improvement. For example, business mergers often fail because the cultures being merged are incompatible with each other, not because either one is inherently unsuitable. It is common for organizational norms and practices to thwart change in general, independent of whether particular changes are for better or worse. Against established and resistant cultures, sound policy direction from the top can be powerless.

Organizational cultures are complex, interdependent systems. In the best of circumstances, they can be “powerful supports for high performance;” they can also be “undermining and subverting” of performance. Changing them is difficult in the best of times.

In Chapter 8 of the book, Organizational Behavior: Real Research for Real Managers, author Jone L. Pearce states,

“Managers can rarely know all of the meanings in organizations of any size,” cannot know “how…interdependent [organizational] systems will react to any major change,” and “cannot control …the meanings different participants will construct.”

In short, institutional cultures have “powerful effects on organizational performance.”

Moreover, there is no such thing as a healthy organizational culture that can be left to its own devices. Building and maintaining healthy cultures is a continuous proposition. The goal of every organization is to produce certain outcomes, not to achieve any given cultural standard. Healthy cultures are continuously developing and improving. The destination is never arrived at.

Management has many responsibilities, but attending to organizational culture(s) is of critical importance. Most organizations have multiple cultures, reflective of different work groups and practices. All of them require oversight and attention. All of them can be improved upon.

Management cultures develop and operate in the same way. For better or worse, the reputations of management cultures often define organizations, even in the public sector. Dysfunctional management cultures can and do negate what is functional elsewhere.

There is nothing inherently better about management cultures than others. Management’s first obligation in terms of organizational culture is to create and maintain high-performance, values-based management cultures. If managers can’t do this for themselves, they will never succeed in doing it for anyone else.

Given our basic assumption that government is about politics and not management, high-performance managerial cultures are hard to come by in the public sector. When institutions of government fail, we instinctively assume that both problem and remedy must be political. We are highly resistant to the notion of management failures, much less managerial remedies.

The Abu Ghraib prison story is a telling example. Numerous retired generals and colonels testified to Congress that what took place there represented a top management failure, not an unfortunate circumstance caused by a few “bad apples.” But the military’s management culture, which is far stronger than most public sector management cultures, did not see it that way. The same saga is unfolding in police departments across the country, where managers are blaming individual officers for systemic failures that implicate management instead.

Management failures are not limited to the private sector. We have them in government too. We just don’t think of government in those terms. Until we learn to do so, government’s managerial shortcomings and failures will continue unabated.

Author: Richard Clay Wilson, Jr. is a retired city manager with 38 years of local government experience. He is the author of the book Rethinking Public Administration: The Case for Management

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