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Rational Agency Design: Avoiding Legacy Assignments

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

By Thomas E. Poulin
June 27, 2022

One of the challenges faced in any public agency is finding the means to organize responsibilities, authorities and resources to achieve optimal results. With the limited resources available to most agencies, especially in smaller communities, it is imperative we make optimal use of all organizational resources if we are to succeed. However, this ideal may be hindered by the existence of legacy assignments. 

For decades, we have been inundated with materials on leadership, culture and interpersonal relationships. These topics are clearly important, but we also need to consider the formal structures and policies related to authorities, responsibilities and resource allocation. The greatest leaders working within the most positive, most professional cultures, supported by a motivated, passionate, talented workforce will be hindered in maximizing service quality if working with worn, outdated tools. Formal organizational structures and policies are tools which, like any other tools, must be maintained or replaced periodically to support performance quality. When maintaining our organizational structures and policies, we need to rid ourselves of historical and fragmented legacies which weigh us down.

Historical Legacies

One form of legacy assignment is the historical legacy which developed around a particular individual who served in a position for many years. Over time, the role evolved—sometimes formally, but sometimes as “mission creep.” The primary rationale for keeping the role in its current form is simply because “we’ve always done it this way”—words which should put a chill down the spine of any leader. The historical legacy is often challenging to identify as an area for improvement, as existing institutional knowledge may fail to envision another approach. However, it is often easier to resolve than a fragmented legacy. Once a historical legacy is recognized, there is often robust discussion on how the organization might be restructured to enhance performance, with a consensus it is time to move forward.

Fragmented Legacies

In a fragmented legacy, as someone moves up the organization, they take aspects of their previous assignment with them. They enjoy it or are comfortable with it, making them unwilling to relinquish it. This affects their capacity to engage fully with their new position, and hinders the person who replaced them from maximizing their own performance. Efficiency and efficacy do not enter the equation. Similarly, the individual being promoted from the position may not trust the new person, leading them to “double up” on duties. There is a rational basis for doing this in the short-term as the new person is trained and mentored into their new role, but the approach becomes dysfunctional if the arrangement never ends. The fragmented legacy is more challenging to eliminate due to the power structures involved. Those who are most affected are those unable to achieve optimal efforts because authorities, responsibilities and access to resources have been retained by their agency superiors. Any efforts to discuss a fragmented legacy, let alone resolve it, might be perceived as insubordination—a “power grab”, not an effort to improve the performance delivery.


What are the consequences of legacy assignments? Public agencies have limited resources. If anchored to outdated past practices, we fail to make optimal use of those limited resources. If anchored to past practices, we might find decision-making is convoluted, involving more people than needed, unnecessarily complicating processes. If anchored to past practices, we might be squandering precious agency talent, failing to capitalize on the value we have in the workplace. This negatively affects employee morale and motivation, damaging the esprit de corps of the entire agency. Being anchored down by forces beyond our control is bad enough—we must not anchor ourselves down through inaction.


Louis Sullivan, famed Chicago architect from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, worked by the axiom “form follows function.” When designing a building, he ensured it would fit the function of the building, else the design was of limited value. While the axiom was developed for architecture, it should be viewed as a dictum for any public sector leader. We should ask ourselves from time to time whether we are organized in a manner to meet current and projected service delivery needs effectively, efficiently and in a responsive manner. Instead of asking how we did it in the past, we should ask how we should be doing it now. We might find we are using the organizational structure which best meets current needs and, if so, validating it is helpful. However, if we find we have dysfunctional structures and policies, if we find we have legacy assignments negatively influencing our performance, we must find a way to minimize their influence until such time as the structure can be redesigned. Craftsmen maintain and replace their tools as needed. Factories replace machinery, software is updated. They do this to ensure they can continue to perform at the highest level possible. We should apply the same philosophy to the structures of public sector agencies, maintaining, repairing or replacing them as necessary to best serve our communities.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, is an HR training and development consultant and serves as Senior Adjunct Faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. Prior to this, he served over 30 years in local government and 10 years as a university professor. He may be reached at [email protected]

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