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Paradigm Shifts in Public Administration — Toward New Benchmarks and Best Practices

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

Column 6: Toward New Team and Network Management

By Siegrun Fox Freyss
Teams come in many different types. They can be organized vertically and horizontally. Vertical or hierarchical teams are ubiquitous forms of modern organizations. Employees of different ranks and qualifications collaborate on joint projects. Unless a team culture is emphasized, employees may hardly be aware of the context in which they are operating.

Horizontal teams can come together within a work unit where the team members do the same work or across functions where individual employees complement each other’s knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs). Homogenous teams, where members do the same work, can be created to generate a sense of camaraderie and avoid boredom. The team members can engage in friendly forms of competition and raise the productivity that way. However, the opposite can also happen – an informal culture can slow down the work process, as the Hawthorne studies documented in the 1930s. Heterogeneous teams consist of diverse members whose different contributions lead to a final product.

Peter Senge, an expert on organizational learning, identifies team learning as one of the important preconditions for an organization to become successful. The learning should align the team members’ diverse views toward a common vision. The confluence of ideas can generate synergy and lead to unexpected, valuable results. Steps to achieve alignment, according to Senge, include personal mastery, the willingness of individuals to learn, and shedding unproductive mental models (see Column 5 for details).

Fox Freyss august

I would like to take the concept of team learning a step further, actually a step back — to the selection of team members. The appointment process tends to be top down, with little or no input from team members. Management may have good reasons for the top-down approach, but a more egalitarian, bottom-up approach, which includes team members in the selection process, may lead to faster group cohesion with a shorter learning curve. The stakeholder argument also applies — team members may feel responsible for the group’s success since they chose each other.

Self-managed work teams are relatively recent phenomena. The strategy is well suited to postmodern work arrangements for four reasons:

  • The workforce is better educated than in the past. It wants to be challenged and apply its diverse competencies. Supervisors can make suggestions, but not dictate work following rigid rules.
  • The mastery of complex high-tech tools requires a team effort. The innovations of the information age will be useless if their capabilities cannot be accessed and put to proper use.
  • The postmodern workforce is more diverse and the timid voices of minorities may receive better attention in small group settings.
  • The generations following the baby boomers want a life with a better balance between work and family. Small work teams can divide the workdays and vacation days to accommodate different family situations. 

Well functioning teams will have a leader or facilitator who keeps the group on target toward its goals and duties and team members will work equally hard – no slackers.

Emotional intelligence has been identified as an important aspect of successful teamwork. The theory of emotional intelligence, popularized by Daniel Goleman in a 1995 book of the same title, suggests that for teamwork to be successful, the members of the group need to be in good control of their own emotions as well as correctly read their colleagues’ emotions.

Organizing work around teams sounds promising. The team arrangement, however, can run into problems that can occur in any workplace, such as political and ideological factions, professional and intellectual disagreements or coworkers with poorly controlled mental disabilities. Because of the small size of teams, there may be no place to hide from conflict situations. Including workers in the selection of team members may minimize such problems, but employers and employees have to make sure they do not violate equal employment opportunity laws.

Fighting terrorism and other large scale criminal activities requires an exceptional degree of group effort — from the FBI at the federal level to state and local law enforcement agencies. The complexity of possible incidents and multi-agency responses can be mastered by holding joint classes for emergency responders and staging joint exercises. This was the insight of one of my public administration students, who was a member of such a taskforce. She felt the joint activities generated confidence, group cohesion and trust, essential attributes in the case of tense situations.

Knowing each other might have been especially important for my student. She looked like a grandmotherly type, middle aged and a little chubby. She did not look like a police officer with a gun hidden under her large tee shirt. Workforce diversity is a hallmark of the postmodern age, and heterogeneous teams may be faster than homogenous ones in generating the resources needed for various challenges. Michael Downing wrote an excellent article on terrorist threats and inter-agency law enforcement preparation. The article is entitled “Policing Terrorism in the United States: The Los Angeles Police Department’s Convergence Strategy” and published in the 2009 issue of The Police Chief.

Larger and less well defined forms of collaboration can assume network structures. Vertical networks involving federal, state and local agencies have been studied for many years in the subfield of intergovernmental relations. Horizontal connections between governments, nonprofit organizations and for-profit corporations have been researched extensively under the privatization label. Horizontal partnerships and cooperation among neighboring jurisdictions is gaining more attention both in practice and theory. Talks with city managers reveal that they would like to do more networking, but their city councils are holding them back. Apparently, to ensure re-election, council members want their administrators to focus on constituency issues.

However, there is one exception. So-called contract cities have a different mindset. Many of their basic services are provided by contracts with neighboring cities, counties and private sector entities. The California Contract Cities Association counts about 60 cities as its members. Networking is one of the Association’s core activities — to gather “like-minded cities and individuals for meetings, conferences and sharing of ideas.”

Contract cities have a conservative history. By incorporating, wealthy neighborhoods could avoid being annexed by less wealthy neighbors. Competition for service contracts has kept union power in check. It is ironic that the policy of contracting services and keeping the bureaucracy small can also be interpreted as an example of the postmodern trend in theory and practice toward deconstruction.

In my next column, I will further examine the concept of deconstruction, as well as a discussion of networks created by the Internet and social media.
Author: Siegrun Fox Freyss is professor emerita at California State University, Los Angeles. She taught, and still teaches part-time, graduate and undergraduate courses in public administration. She is the co-author and editor of two books on public sector human resources management. Fox Freyss received her Ph.D. in government from the Claremont Graduate University and a master’s degree in applied geography from the Technical University, Munich, Germany. She can be reached at [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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