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Redesigning Government Agencies

Using Organizational Health, Organizational Agility and Network Health

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

By Bill Brantley
June 2, 2015

health-care-checklist-600 304 - BrantleyImplementing policy is just as vital as creating the policy. Agencies need the ability to effectively execute and manage policies. In my research about how government agencies are designed and managed, there are three concepts that can be useful for understanding how agencies can successfully execute their missions and policies. Using organizational health, organizational agility, and network health is the best guide to reforming government agencies.

Technology and societal changes have created new types of private sector organizations that did not exist 20 years ago. New challenges like climate change and terrorism have also created new demands on governments to respond effectively. Agencies must evolve to meet citizen needs and demands. The question is how to help agencies evolve effectively.

Organizational Health

Organizational health is defined by Keller and Price in their 2011 book, Beyond Performance, as “the ability of an organization to align, execute and renew itself . . . so that it can sustain exceptional performance over time.” For government agencies, organizational health is how effectively the people, processes and technologies are aligned with the agency’s strategic goals. Under the Keller and Price model, agencies would be measured along three dimensions: internal alignment, quality of execution and capacity for renewal. In other words; is everyone in the agency working toward the same goals and can they achieve these goals now and in the future?

To answer, agencies should examine their performance on the following nine elements (adopted from Keller and Price):

  1. Direction – a clear sense of where the organization is heading and how it will get there that is meaningful to all employees.
  2. Leadership – the extent to which leaders inspire actions by others.
  3. Culture and climate – the shared beliefs and quality of interactions within and across organizational units.
  4. Accountability – the extent to which individuals understand what is expected of them, have sufficient authority to carry it out and take responsibility for delivering results.
  5. Coordination and control – the ability to evaluate organizational performance and risk, and to address issues and opportunities when they arise.
  6. Capabilities – the presence of institutional skills and talent required to execute strategy and create competitive advantage.
  7. Motivation – the presence of enthusiasm that drives employees to put in the extraordinary effort to deliver results.
  8. External orientation – the quality of engagement with customers, suppliers, partners and other external stakeholders to drive value.
  9. Innovation and learning – the quality and flow of new ideas and the organization’s ability to adapt and shape itself as needed. 

Organizational Agility

Organizational health is necessary but not sufficient. An agency must have organizational agility to maintain organizational health. Federal agencies have a long tradition of organizational structures with firm boundaries (established by organizational charts) and strict internal and external areas of formal authority (statutes, regulations, executive orders, policies, inter-agency working agreements, etc.). Increasingly, however, agencies are recognizing that they, too, exist in a complex adaptive system. Agencies have permeable boundaries that are impacted daily by external factors (i.e., budgets, social media, unexpected crises), which in turn affect how agencies achieve their missions.

Organizational agility has become and will continue to be a requirement for federal organizations as external environmental factors (e.g., budget fluctuations, changes in public expectations, unforeseen crises) become more complex and unpredictable. This continuous change requires that modern organizations acquire a flexible and responsive approach to managing people, processes and technology to achieve their missions. Agencies must now build capacity to manage change while pursuing optimal performance and mission accomplishment. Managing with agility incorporates the notion of being flexible and open to adopting new business processes, while adapting an organization’s mindset and culture to constant change. Agencies must enable leaders, managers and employees to align toward outcomes while constantly scanning for projected changes and preparing to adapt to new requirements and expectations.

Network Health

I am still working on the network health concept, but it has similarities to organizational health. In network health, healthy and agile organizations replace people in the people, processes and technology triad of organizational health. As Innes and Booher write in Planning with Complexity,

“[a]t its heart, adaptive governance is about harnessing the power of networks – networks that connect people, ideas, and knowledge in changing combinations across organizations and public problems.”

No single government agency, no matter how healthy and agile, can work alone in solving many of the larger challenges facing governments today. It will take a network to manage these problems.

The New Government Agency

I do not yet know what the ideal organizational design is for government agencies. Maybe there is an entire group of organizational designs specific to the mission. Maybe agencies will cycle through a series of organizational designs based on the challenges the agency faces. Whatever the design of the agency, the successful agencies will have organizational health, be agile and are valuable contributors in a healthy network of agencies and other entities.

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Maryland (College Park), George Mason University and the University of Louisville. He is also a federal government employee with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. He can be reached at  http://about.me/bbrantley.

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