Too divided to function | The Triangle

Too divided to function

A problem with government

Flickr: Michael Righi
Flickr: Michael Righi

The city government is made up of several departments, each covering a separate area of work that needs to be done, which allows for flexibility. In theory, that design is fine. It’s functional. In practice, its implementation has some issues.

The departments are treated not as components of the city government, but as entirely separate entities. They are spread all over the city and communication between them is nonexistent at best, to the extent that I was able to work for the city water department for half of a year and never even learn where any other departments’ headquarters were located.

This disparity between departments, while probably less than healthy, is on its own not a huge issue. It becomes a larger issue when one considers making the city government more efficient and generally more effective. More specifically, because each department is entirely self-contained, there are a lot of overlapping sub-departments. Each department has its own private Information Technology and Payroll divisions, among other things, for no real reason.

If one were to pull the IT division out of every city department and develop a new IT department responsible for handling IT problems in every city department, equipment and service quality could be regulated by a common standard. Another benefit to such a change is that no IT group needs on average the amount of people the group needs at the maximum. For instance, let’s say a given IT group needs a staff of three people for common day-to-day occurrences, but needs 10 people for emergencies during which a hundred computers need to be moved physically between buildings. In that case, the group needs to keep 10 people on staff at all times just in case they need all ten for something, but most of the time seven of those people have nothing to do. Centralizing all of the IT staves between every department of city government would allow the new department to employ a smaller staff than the sum of all the previous divisions because it would have the flexibility to shift employees between departments as needed.

Returning to the previous example, and assuming that there are nine departments in the city government, the addition of an IT department that has to service itself raises the department count to 10. Assuming that each department needs three employees on average but 10 employees at maximum, the city government as a whole would require 30 employees on average and 100 at maximum, requiring a standing staff of 100. However, the chance that all 10 departments will have emergencies requiring 10 people at the same time is very low; the IT department could get by with only 60 or 70 employees, which covers the needs of all 10 departments on average plus an extra three or four emergencies at any given time.

However, this could be a problem with such poor communication between departments. If the city fire department wanted to move all of its computers to a different building, for instance, it would be in everyone’s best interest for the fire department to first make sure that none of the other departments are using emergency IT employees; every department would need to know more than it currently does about every other department.

This is also where physical location comes into play. In order for city departments to cooperate and share resources efficiently, it would be best if they were located in close proximity to one another. One might even recommend that they all be located inside one large building. A hall, if you will, in the center of the city.

Returning to the IT department for a moment to illustrate the need for physical proximity, imagine that a new employee in the new IT department needs to troubleshoot a computer in the water department. The employee asks their boss where the water department is and their boss says, “Down this hall and to the left.” Do you see how much more convenient that is than whatever the answer would be right now?

Cooperation and communication between departments would make city government far more efficient, but cannot be implemented within the current environment. But then, if it operated efficiently, it wouldn’t really be city government.