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Posted by on May 12, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

We Can’t Change Cities until We Change This…

The American Planning Association has an interesting Mindmixer discussion asking “what should the planning office of the future look like.”  Not a bad question, but skips over a better one: What should local government of the future look like?

Right now the local government organization chart (or org chart) is how we understand the local government of the present. The chart is mostly used to understand hierarchy – what are the Departments and who reports to whom. It is, for all practical purposes, the functional classification system for the community. Like roads under a functional classification system, it is broken.  Local governments are locked into a vertical hierarchy with little formalized networks across the system and end points that, like cul de sacs, beg the question “Now, where  are we going with this?”  Creative city managers might think of new names for Departments to signal innovation, or like Boston, add a creative branch (The Office of New Urban Mechanics) to the Mayor’s office.  But the software for building organizational charts pretty much locks you into a structure of boxes:

Conventinoal org chart

Like streets and roads, there is a better way, suggested by (ironically enough) Walt Disney.  In 1943, Walt Disney Studios put out an organization chart to explain how the company was organized to deliver their products.  The chart is less about who-does-what (thought he chart can accommodate names), but the process and where the process is going.  



Wal Disney Company, 1943

Walt Disney Company, 1943 (click to see larger view)

For cities, imagine explaining people and process at the same time.  Taking cues from Disney, what if a city’s org chart looked more like this:

org chartA couple of things:

  • The organization is focused on the product: great communities
  • The organization is structured for a continuous improvement loop.
  • The discussion starts with priorities. In an era of tight budgets, this has to take a more visible role.  Walnut Creek California’s Priority Based Budgeting is a good example of how priority setting fits in local governance.
  • There are several screening opportunities.  The first big one is the city’s strategic plan (which is not the same as a comprehensive plan, but more like Portland Oregon’s Portland Plan).
  • Implementation methods are clearly marked, and small area plans elevated as a mechanism.
  • Long term investments and assets have clear pathways that are different, but related.
  • Schools and Public Safety (namely law enforcement) are typically semi-autonomous entities, even though they make decisions that affect great communities (just as communities make decisions that affect school budgets and safety).  This chart recognizes both the connections and autonomy

Finally, if you really, really need an org chart – it is there in the middle, though looks more like a mosaic than a hierarchy. The gray circles on the edge are the traditional job functions like human resources and fleet management.  There are also circles in the mosaic that are the staff-equivalent of free range chickens.  These are cross discipline staffers who tie the whole thing together and serve like miniature Research & Development officials (for more on this see George Hawkins of DC Water’s blog post on innovation).

This is just a rough outline, but worth asking – does the organization chart need new thinking to create great places?





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