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Pluperfect Tensions

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Pluperfect Tensions: Organizations M and A

 

Perhaps it is indicative of the ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate time in which we now live that Heckscher and Adler (2006) proclaim the conception of contemporary firm as “collaborative community.” A simple search via Scholar’s Portal[1] on titles that contain variations of the word “collaborate” yield nearly 90,000 articles and books published over the last decade alone. This study’s BAH and UCaPP participant organizations both claim to encourage collaboration among their various constituencies. But as Loreen observes,

 

I think it’s [collaboration] a very misunderstood way of working. That if anyone were to look at that as a vernacular shift from teamwork, it’s completely different from teamwork. I often will ask how we got to a strategy … what is the process they used to get there. And so a typical response could be, oh we definitely collaborated—we had everyone in the room. Everyone from the team was in the room. So that’s a meeting. It’s not a collaboration. (Loreen-1-95)

 

Loreen alludes to an important semantic distinction between a team and a collaboration—one that will be examined in greater detail in this, and the subsequent chapters. Yet, in the sort of difference in intent and effect that Loreen, the CEO of Unit 7, perceives lie the significant distinctions that characterize organizations as being either more-BAH or more-UCaPP. The distinctions appear when one considers the meaning-producing contexts of the overtly intended, the unintended, and the sometimes more manipulative, tacitly intended effects created in each organizational environment. These environments range from the most BAH among the participant organizations, through the organization that seems to define the clearly UCaPP form of collaborative management. Each organization tells a unique and revealing story that defines its location on the BAH-through-UCaPP continuum.

 

Organization M: The Contemporary Archetype of Bureaucracy, Administrative Control, and Hierarchy

 

In general, BAH organizations can be thought of as being primarily concerned with the instrumentality of their processes; in other words, accomplishing the nominal purposes and objectives assigned to each bureau in the bureaucracy. At one time in the government, policy analysts and advisors enacted the role of helping to develop the impetus for government initiatives. Although the political imperative set the thematic direction for public policy, it was the analytic role of the civil service that translated those themes into the motive force that drove legislation and regulations. This has changed, according to Organization M’s Mary: “The authority that people had as a policy advisor is pretty well gone. The authority that managers had is pretty well gone. The policy is coming from the top down now, not from the bottom up” (Mary-1-23).

 

Mary describes how a new government’s assumption of partisanship on the part of civil service members created an immediate distrust of their motives, and hence, their presumed ability to perform their jobs appropriately. “Even though I’m in the same position, I could see the mistrust because part of my job was to go to the House and somebody would stand in front of me and I couldn’t do my job” (Mary-1-47). This mistrust resulted in the creation of a political functionary layer, inserted between the politicians and the civil service, that assumed the direct responsibility for policy creation, notably without the thought and analysis that characterizes the civil service’s nominal policy role.

 

From her perspective as a policy advisor, Mary describes the deterioration of the quality and value of her position, as policy is now being directed from the senior hierarchical level of political operatives:

 

I haven’t done a briefing in years and our jobs have been really devalued. There’s zero creativity now and … [there used to be] tons. I used to do Cabinet submissions. And I probably, in the first ten years I was there, might have done twenty or thirty. I probably haven’t done more than two or three in the last twenty years. (Mary-1-57)

 

I would imagine that within our ministry, the people that are actually doing stuff that our ministry takes ownership of, are basically writing as directed. (Mary-1-67)

 

That direction comes within strictly segregated areas of responsibility that are well-defined and non-redundant among the ministry’s various branches. Each branch looks after its own, relatively narrow considerations. This parochial behaviour is consistent with the characteristically BAH assumption – derived from Henri Fayol’s (1949) “division of work” principle – that a large and significant issue, when fragmented and decomposed into its component parts, will reveal itself completely through a detailed understanding of each individual piece.

 

Coordination in such a BAH environment involves delegating responsibility among the branches so that there is minimal, if any, topical redundancy or overlap with respect to those pieces. Simultaneously, the ministry attempts to ensure that each piece is indeed the responsibility of one branch or another.

 

The reproduction of tasks being mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive with respect to an all-compassing objective inheres in each individual, even to the most junior of personnel. Mina, with only one year’s experience in the ministry, defines her role in terms of a “portfolio” of three, distinct jobs[2]. The juxtaposition of the three jobs in one body is a fascinating, fractal microcosm of BAH division of work: they don’t particularly relate to one another in theme, synergies, expertise, or any other common attributes or characteristics of the task responsibilities themselves. Rather, they seem to fulfil fractioned, functional requirements of the ministry that are able to co-exist in one position because the individual jobs are mutually exclusive, and collectively exhaust Mina’s required work time. In that sense, they indeed comprise a portfolio. They are a basket of unrelated tasks that not only represent the functional decomposition of the organization but, in a sense, functionally decompose the integral individual herself.

 

Water-tight Bureaucracy

 

As previously mentioned, policy is dictated directly from the hierarchical layer of political functionaries to be “written as directed.” Members of the civil service have increasingly become isolated from each other, and from the general flow of information. “To be honest, now there’s such water-tight compartments, I can’t even tell you the details of the [policy papers] that are happening, whereas before, we used to—there used to be a lot more sharing” (Mary-1-35). The introduction of the political layer changed not only the traditional, linear, bureaucratic information flow. It also transformed delegation of control through vertical organizational channels. Hence, it also changed the relational dynamics of power throughout the organization. As Mary describes, “there’s just such a hierarchy now of people who are political that are running things. They will make a policy decision that they want to do something … [and] we stopped doing recommendations”(Mary-1-35), significantly reducing the civil service’s influence in public policy.

 

Mary’s personal experience of deskilling, devaluing, and disempowerment in her work role encouraged her to become active in the union. After listening to various anecdotes, I ask Mary whether the union is paralleling the government in the way it is run, how its members and middle management ranks are being disempowered and deskilled, and how diverse opinions are systematically ignored. She responds: “You know, it actually is. I never thought about it that way, and it wasn’t supposed to be” (Mary-1-96). In fact, the union seems to be replicating the precise power dynamics that are effected in the management structure and operations—a form of “reproduction of the system of means” to which Castells (1996, p. 171) refers.

 

Thus, if there is dysfunction, inequity, and exercise of privilege in the workplace, it is not unexpected that there might be analogous dysfunction, inequity, and exercise of privilege in the union. Mary realizes this dynamic has indeed occurred:

 

[The union president] often makes policy, and this is what bugged me on the board. He could have showed [the policy letter] to the board, but he didn’t. So he’s making policy on his own all the time. I guess that sounds pretty much like the current government. Wow. Wow. Yeah, I never thought of that. (Mary-1-107)

 

Mary’s characterization of “water-tight compartments” seems to be a significant innovation in BAH control that, in an ironic way, seems to be perversely consistent with the contemporary, massively interconnected era. In traditional bureaucracies, information and delegation would travel along a linear chain of command as originally described by Fayol (1949), with relatively little substantive change over the decades. Managers at various hierarchical levels would serve as the gatekeepers and governors of that information, giving them considerable control, and therefore, “information power” (French & Raven, 1959).

 

Individuals in the political layer between the politicians and civil service now have the ability to directly connect with and control those who fill discrete positions anywhere throughout the bureaucratic hierarchy. Although there remains a very clear and explicit status hierarchy in government, and an administrative bureaucracy that involves complicated, procedural rigour, control-from-the-top can be effected as point-to-point connection, isolating an individual from intervening or subordinate bureaucratic levels.

 

Traditional administrative bureaucracies would typically create so-called silos in which information flows vertically in an organization, but is impeded from horizontal dissemination except for specifically designated “bridges” or “gangplanks” as Fayol originally called them—positions whose control connected two or more functional areas. With the form of direct control present in contemporary government structures, vertical flow of information has become likewise impeded.

 

To effect this type of direct-from-the-top control of substantial content – that is, the development of public policy – necessitates a particular sort of bureaucratic apathy among those with nominal, legitimated power. Individuals’ power-to-control ambitions must be diverted from directing substantial issues to controlling more trite and trivial aspects of individual behaviours often typified, if not caricatured[3], in hierarchical, administrative bureaucracies.

 

A hiring strategy that effectively destroys institutional memory over time is one way to distract civil servants from the reality of their loss of policy power. Relatively young and inexperienced people, albeit with formal credentials, are being hired and rapidly promoted, according to Mary. With little to no prior experience and no institutional memory among the new senior ranks in the governmental bureaucracy, the politicizing of what used to be the civil service’s policy role – its locus of power and influence with respect to the public interest – is more easily accomplished. The distraction creates a shift that encourages a greater focus on individual status and intra-organizational power dynamics, taking a significant toll in organizational effectiveness and culture.

 

Organizationally, this control shift has created a new form of what I might term discrete-office bureaucracy, in which information flow and delegation can be effected point-to-point, from the top (political layer) of the hierarchy to any arbitrary member situated at any arbitrary lower level. Sean, for example, describes a situation in which he received what appeared to be two separate assignments, one via this discrete-office dynamic and the other via the normal delegation mechanism from his direct superior. Before expending too much effort on what would have been redundant tasks, he was able to discern that the two seemingly independent requests were, in fact, one and the same. Sean sums up his reaction to this type of dilemma: “The entire information flow process is frustrating sometimes because you just never, well, not never, but at this point I’m not a hundred percent confident that I’m talking to who I should be talking to, when I’m talking to them” (Sean-1-47).

 

Official hiring approaches in Organization M seems to be divided between the classical divisions of “thinkers” – relatively more senior positions involving analytical and decision-making responsibility – and “doers,” those involved in relatively lower-level tasks. For the latter category, often aimed at recruiting relatively less-qualified people, there are internship programs intended for managers who have justified entry-level positions to fill. However, Mina claims that the program is less about filling required roles within the civil service:

 

Essentially, it’s a way to bring people into the government. So, you are encouraged to look for work while you’re there as an intern. You can stay in the program as long as you want, up to two years. Or, you can start looking as early as you want. Your mostly direct goal is to get a job. (Mina-1-268)

 

People could leave their rotation in the middle, or they could leave two months into it. It’s considered ambitious [if they leave early]. It’s good for them, right? It’s a loss for the manager. They were hoping to have them for longer than two months, or however long they were there, but that’s the purpose of the program. …. It’s the intern’s career, and it’s their choice. (Mina-1-292)

 

In the description of the program’s operation, the specific intern seems to be irrelevant to the job, and the specific job is irrelevant to the intern—the program is effectively a staging platform that matches a relatively anonymous person into an arbitrary, permanent job. Structured as it is, with no apparent commitment to the hiring manager or her/his task requirements, the program is designed to foster individualism, and deny any feeling of collective responsibility or collaborative mentality. In other words, it promotes isolation, independence, and tends to preclude fostering a culture of collective benefit throughout the organization.

 

For more senior, and senior-track positions, there is an emphasis on hiring credentialed, but relatively inexperienced, new members:

 

With respect to the young people coming in and being hired. I’ve noticed … there’s a trend that they’re all coming from Large University. They generally all have, I think, an MPA [Master of Public Administration degree]. … People who have been around for a long time will not go for the [more senior and supervisory] jobs; … they feel that the competitions are skewed so that the younger people will win. (Mary-1-41)

 

In addition, there has been a concerted effort to eliminate access to paper files that comprise the tangible form of a government’s long-term organizational memory (Mary-1-131/135), a plan that many are resisting (Sean-1-207). Mary comments on the “trend that was there about ten years ago to give people early retirement—there goes the institutional memory. But when the paper’s gone too … it’s just weird” (Mary-1-141). The combined effect of both the hiring strategy and the elimination of documents is to gradually erase institutional memory from the managerial ranks of the organization, making them more susceptible to being controlled by the political functionary hierarchical layer previously mentioned. Without ready access to historical precedents via either records or direct memory, those who traditionally might have been considered in the class of “thinkers” now effectively become little more than higher-status “doers,” as Mary has described.

 

This structural change in the hierarchy does not consider the organization’s members instrumentally, nor does it consider them strictly in interpersonal relational terms. Rather, in effect, it seems to make the rather startling statement that not only are people irrelevant, but so too are the espoused purpose and objectives of the organization itself. The organization’s in-use theory appears to have become an instrumental means through which to effect partisan political policy using BAH control mechanisms[4]. The participants’ experience with the internship program, described earlier, is consistent with this rather contentious observation.

 

An individual employed under the two-year internship program is under no obligation to complete either the first or second one-year work term if s/he locates a job at any time during the year, whether it is related to the assigned work-term tasks or not. There seems to be an air of irrelevance associated with both the task and the specific person: the task is of nominal importance in that it must have prior justification, although there is no imperative for it to be completed; the view of the intern him/herself is simply that of an undifferentiated future bureaucrat.

 

The ramifications of this shift are that, over time, members become disengaged with the nominal purpose of what should be a purposeful organization. Instead, they become hyper-focused on retaining the hierarchical trappings of office to the point where some managers’ assumption of the privilege of absolute control over individuals almost defies credulity in a contemporary context. For example, during a dispute mediation between an individual who is a union member, and her manager,

 

the mediator told both parties to write their list of what they wanted. The manager came back with her list, and one of the things she wanted my person to sign off on was, the manager is always right. It was weird, like, that was what she wanted, I am always right, whatever I say. (Mary-1-165)

 

There is another explanation that is perhaps not quite as stark as the contention that the governmental organization’s purpose and its members are irrelevant. What is particularly notable about how the organization has evolved over the past two decades is the change in structural thinking about organization caused by partisan political concerns in what might otherwise be considered a typical BAH organization. Organization M seems to view relationships – albeit partisan relationships – as its dominant organizing factor, rather than the more usual and expected structuring influences of an office’s instrumental responsibility or purpose. In effect, the introduction of the political layer of the hierarchy and discrete-office control creates a new, very contemporary, mutation of the centuries-old BAH organization. This new variation of the traditional form involves two distinct classes of “thinkers” and initiates direct control of individual “doers” by one of the thinker classes, in parallel to the nominal hierarchical chain of command. As I will discuss in a later chapter, implicating relationships as a fundamental structuring element in a contemporary organizational form represents a significant conceptual change that is definitively characteristic of the UCaPP world.

 

Speaking With One Voice

 

Just as many individuals seem to place their personal interests above those of the organization as a whole, each branch vigorously represents its own interests – often in contention with its sister branches – relative to the ministry as a whole. Thus, the ministry’s nominal, politically obligatory objective of representing a single, unified approach to complex issues is a challenge. Given the specificity of functional responsibilities distributed among the branches, there seems to be no space for nuance, negotiating meaning or consensus, or holding polarity tensions (Johnson, 1992) when coordinating complex issues:

 

Ideally, each person would speak only about their area of expertise, or their branch’s interests. … So you’ll get two people addressing the same issue, and if they’re taking a different tack on it, you’ve got to find a way to make sure you resolve it, and have only one person speaking… Where there is a contradiction [in approaches] … it’s just been a matter of whoever has got the technical rights to that particular issue. It’s within their area of jurisdiction, they pull rank and that’s that. It’s designed to be that way … so that, at the end of the day, the ministry speaks with only one voice, and it’s not a fractured voice. (Sean-1-27/29)

 

Sean’s description of how such issues are resolved – those who possess the “technical rights” to the issue “pull rank” – is completely consistent with both the status hierarchy and fragmented scopes of responsibility that define a BAH organization. The ministry’s consultative committee process is a useful illustration of these characteristics. As part of the process of drafting legislation, the government often consults with a committee of stakeholders representing various interested and relevant public constituencies. Because of his technical knowledge and functional role, Sean believes it would make sense for him to directly participate on the committee, and has advocated to be included. However, ministry representation on these committees is restricted:

 

The consultant that is running the committee process, and the government agency that is helping them run it, are very reluctant to add [ministry] people to the committee, because … they want to make sure [public committee members’] input is heard, and the more government members that you add, the more you are likely to just sort of be doing a fancy consultation, rather than actually taking their [i.e., the public members’] input seriously (Sean-1-43).

 

Hierarchical status and class – those whose office nominally defines domain responsibility – determine who represents the ministry on these committees, as opposed to subject matter experts like Sean—those who do the actual analytic work.

 

The director of my branch is our ministry’s member, our ministry’s representative. He is assigned work though the committee, and myself, and a colleague with the branch are the ones who are actually doing the work, because he’s got the actual running the branch to do. So we look at the actual issues, do the meat of the work. (Sean-1-37)

 

After each committee meeting, Sean receives minutes and a debrief from his superiors who actually attended. “We try to figure out what’s going on, because, you know, the minutes of the meeting are very minimal, and you can’t really tell what the interactions are and where the pressures are coming from on particular initiatives in committee” (Sean-1-37). Such fragmentation of responsibility, separating “thinkers” from “doers” à la Frederick Taylor, has its consequences. Sean describes one of the more ironic cases in which bureaucratic procedure, nominally designed for efficient transmission of information and coordination of activities, actually hinders information conveyance needed to properly contextualize an issue:

 

As [the committee members] identify issues, I’ll go through the minutes, and like, oh, they could have thought about this, they could have approached it this way, this was an option for them too. And my advice, while it does get back to them eventually, it goes through a formal approval process, it goes to my director, and it’s noted at the start of the next meeting, at which point it’s not the most helpful. It’s more distilled and it’s distant from when they were actually making those decisions. (Sean-1-49)

 

Thus, the resolution of ambiguity, ambivalence, nuance, and diverse contexts does not involve direct interaction or conversation with the committee. Instead, it remains a fractured, jurisdictional concern, mediated by bureaucratic, hierarchically defined procedures. The committee may indeed make a clear and distinct decision, but it is without the benefit of appropriately hearing relevant information that would have informed its conclusions or recommendations at the time. According to administrative procedure, information-flow is technically well-coordinated with its ideation of an efficient decision-making process. But as Sean notes, “So there’s the ideal process, and the reality is fairly far from it” (Sean-1-91).

 

To find compromise – a middle ground that perhaps holds a third or fourth alternative to the two distinct positions held by different factions – requires connection, juxtaposition of contexts, meeting of minds, and mutual understanding. The bureaucracy of Organization M, based on what Mary describes as “water-tight compartments” (Mary-1-35), precludes these precursors to comprehensive meaning-making. With a considerably narrowed scope of ground conditions, the sense that the organization is able to make of any given issue becomes, in effect, limited to that particular outcome desired by those in a superior position of control. Processes of deliberation in Organization M are structurally designed to preclude meaningful connections and deep contextual understanding in favour of distinct, dichotomous, right-and-wrong clarity—a sensibility necessarily requiring unity because “the ministry speaks with only one voice” (Sean-1-29).

 

The government is making a notable attempt to reduce individual ministries’ insular view of their particular areas of concern, especially with regard to major issues or broad themes of public interest. These more complex matters require multiple ministries to coordinate their policy and program initiatives. Thus, the government has created small, cross-ministry organizations. True to BAH form, all of these working groups respect strict hierarchical levels: members in any given group are of the same senior management rank, constructing Henri Fayol’s equal-rank “gang planks” to effect inter-ministry coordination.

 

Success by the Numbers

 

Stan describes the extreme emphasis the organization places on quantification and (supposedly) objective measurements to demonstrate accomplishments. However, he suggests that metrics are specifically selected to illustrate the success of the system and its overseers, rather than the true effectiveness-relative-to-intent of the program. One example[5] describes how a particular government initiative that funds locally administered programs throughout the province has three metrics: a measurement of local intention, that is, the intended number of people who will be served by the program; a measurement of provider agreements, that is, the number of people that individual service providers agree to serve; and a measurement of actual services provided to the public. Funding is provided to local authorities based on the measurement of intention, and the minister reports the success of the program to Parliament in terms of that number. However, Stan relates that in a major Canadian city, less than 25% of the intended number of people are actually served, a number that is relatively hidden from scrutiny.

 

Similarly, Stan outlines the budget reconciliation process, designed so that the budgeting system – not to mention the government itself – is not embarrassed or shown to be deficient in fiscal control. Managers are given a personal, financial incentive to have their actual annual expenses fall within 2% of their final budget. However, that final budget estimate is actually locked-in less than three months before the end of the fiscal year. Effectively, managers win their bonuses for managing a 2% budget-versus-actual margin over a period of less than one fiscal quarter.

 

The extreme focus on quantification even extends to whether the organization considers the morale of its members to be important:

 

I think a lot of mangers and directors … don’t want to invest in people, because, investment in people, you cannot quantify it. It’s not quantifiable. And you cannot see the outcome right away. But, for [my manager], if she could [increase the number of signed agreements to provide services], it’s quantifiable. She can see the outcome of it right away. But whether my morale is going up or down, she couldn’t care less. And I think a lot of organizations feel that. (Stan-1-80)

 

Nominally, as with all quantitative measurements, the numbers do not lie. However, despite the measurement system in Organization M being specifically designed so that the measured results are likely to appear favourable, irrespective of the actual outcomes, Stan laments,

 

…performance measurement shouldn’t be taken in isolation. It should be taken in context with other, broader things. [Service provision] shouldn’t be taken in the context of just providing X-number of [services] to people. It should be taken in the context of other things. Health. Community. (Stan-1-47)

 

It is almost as if the organization is incapable of making sense of a situation or understanding the effects of initiatives – the quality of what it is doing – without a nominally objective, external framework, and directed procedures on which to rely. Sense-making in complex environments typically involves assimilating and integrating diverse thinking, and drawing on multiple, meaning-making contexts. However, the more procedural, the more fragmented, and more removed from actual context this interpretive process becomes, the less overall sense is actually made. An organizational view based on extreme administrative instrumentality and objective quantification may be unable to perceive quality. It is perhaps even true that an extreme-BAH organization is neither designed nor instrumented to actually make sense.

 

 

Read on: Organization A

 


[1] An online database of indices pointing to journals published by the major academic publishers, full-text scholarly resources, collections of dissertations, and other miscellaneous publications that are salient to an academic audience.

[2] Mina’s specific jobs are not identified to protect her confidentiality.

[3] Viz. the television program, The Office, or the satirical comic, Dilbert.

 

[4] I would say that this contention is not unique to Organization M; it seems to be endemic to many, if not most, contemporary, highly partisan, nominally democratic jurisdictions. This observation in turn raises a concern about the nature of democratic process (aside from the periodic exercise of a minority of the public marching to polls and casting ballots). If, as I argue, contemporary societal conditions mandate connections, juxtaposition of meaning-making contexts, and complex analyses of complex problems, the very structure of government organizations may well be inconsistent with the ideals of contemporary democracy and democratic principles. This, however, is a topic for a different thesis.

[5] Details are deliberately vague to respect Stan’s confidentiality.

 

 

 

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