Monday, January 3, 2011

Diffusion of Responsibility

The risk of bureaucratic paralysis is highest when there are needless layers of organization.

Yeah, it's about the Police Department again.

In our new structure, with a command ratio of 1.25 superiors for every 1 on the street officer, and with that command structure ensuring four layers between the patrol officer and the chief in a department smaller than the Aventura Mall Security Force, North Bay Village enters Kafka's territory.

A small example, fictional but it will happen: If a patrol officer sees a pattern emerging and has an idea of how the PD might respond, that patrol officer must first present the problem and the proposed solution to her or his immediate superior. Assuming that superior agrees, the first line supervisor then has the job of convincing her or his superior that the concept has merit. It could die there, but if it does not, the next in line is the executive officer, who must be convinced and finally the chief. I don't know about you, but if I were on patrol, I wouldn't bother.

This absurd structure actively prevents community responsiveness by diffusing responsibility and delaying decision making. If four people make the decision, who's accountable? That may be one of its purposes.

There are other reasons. In times like this, it's a political disaster to hand out raises. But by creating an unnecessary and fictitious command structure, the police chief circumvents this by asserting that the new structure requires different salary structures, not a raise but simply putting the position in line. And by doing it through the abuse of reorganization, people perceived as allies are rewarded.

So innovation is silenced, submission is rewarded, costs rise, effectiveness drops.

Finally, the further away from the execution a decision is made, the less responsibility the decision maker takes. A bad decision made at the top, communicated through four layers of command and executed on the street, does not have a clear path to accountability. Was the decision wrong? Was the communication wrong? Was the execution wrong? It provides the high ranking officials with cover. It will be the patrol officers who will bear the brunt of poor decisions and the command who claims the credit. It's the nature of the beast.

The more complicated an organization, the more difficult it is to pinpoint responsibility and accountability. Large, bloated organizations provide lots of cover for mistakes, errors in judgment, and are not able to respond quickly and effectively to new circumstances if they respond at all.

In private enterprise, especially in this era of globalization, companies have been struggling for decades to find the right balance between the traditional vertical organization, a structure optimized for performance at a single point in time which runs the risk of being inflexible, and a flat organization, which has few layers of decision making and can run the risk of being incoherent. Some organizations succeed in bridging this gap, Southwest Airlines comes to mind, while others fall miserably.

The US military spends much intellectual energy and capital moving between a traditional "command and control" centralized strategy and a more agile approach to local tactics on the ground. It's not an easy balancing act and there is ample reason to believe that getting this balance wrong made the Iraq war longer, harder and nastier than it needed to be.

For North Bay Village to take the opposite tack, to make the PD more complex, less transparent and less effective, shows a dangerous contempt to even the appearance of good management.

Kevin Vericker
January 3, 2011

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