Report: Build management networks, not hierarchies

Management structures that blend hierarchies with networks of affected parties will be most effective in meeting challenges facing the federal government in the 21st century, according to a recent report.

The report, which sets out to answer the question of what management directions should be pursued by the next presidential administration, was written by Donald Kettl of the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute of Government. It recommended the use of network structures to address nonroutine problems, and the so-called "center-edge" approach to organizing networks.

Take recent management changes at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Faced with handling the fallout from the 2001 anthrax attacks, "the CDC had ultimate responsibility for the results but did not have authority to produce or control them," Kettle wrote. Leadership had to "find a way to enlist partners, in government and outside, in the United States and around the world, to manage the problem."

Kettl's report described how CDC reengineered a traditional, hierarchical management structure into a network of hubs, representing managers, and spokes, or lines of communication to front-line actors responding to the situation. The structure was institutionalized in a series of "coordinating centers" that regrouped the organization's traditional responsibilities around functional areas like health promotion and infectious diseases.

Kettl attributed this center-edge strategy to former President Clinton's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a group charged with implementing that administration's management agenda. The Clinton advisers developed it as a promising strategy for managing networks by using small groups of senior-level decision-makers to coordinate the network from the center while participants prompted change at the "edge" of a problem. The approach also involves using a thin middle layer of facilitators.

This strategy works because it clearly identifies the different roles that players will take, allowing for an authority to set overall direction, the report said. It also builds a system that encompasses both flexibility and accountability.

Hierarchical structures are especially effective for managing routine problems, while nonhierarchical structures, and especially networks, are preferable for nonroutine issues and those that are information-intensive, such as new threats. Missions such as homeland security, law enforcement and public health fall in the middle and require the integration of these strategies, the report stated.

"For many tough problems, success increasingly depends on information as much as more traditional assets like authority," Kettl wrote. "Knowledge-based organizations…focus on building the capacity to adapt rapidly to change -- that is, to cope with problems that are distinctly nonroutine."

Changes in the types of problems faced by government -- including new threats such as bio-terror and natural disasters -- will require fundamental changes in how government approaches problems, the report said.

Kettl said organizing government to respond to "changing rules, a new emphasis on performance, a focus on improved service delivery and increased collaboration…is challenging the very foundation of public administration in the United States and around the world."

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