By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.
I recently met with Jim Harper of the Cato Institute in Washington DC to talk about government program transparency. Jim is the author of the recent report Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices which, among other things, reviews and grades recent transparency efforts of the US Government’s Executive and Legislative branches.
One of the criticisms in the report of the Executive branch of government (see page 8 and the “D-minus” grade for “Agencies”) is the general overall lack of departmental organization charts for government agencies.
I have to agree with this criticism. An organizational chart, as flawed as it is, attempts to describe “who does what” in an organization. This is even more important than answering questions about “who reports to whom” and other hierarchy related questions.
If you are on the outside, knowing “who does what” is essential to deciding whom to contact regarding any problems or issues with a government agency’s programs. This is one of the main criticisms I had about the US Environmental Protection Agency’s mobile app which I discussed in The EPA’s Mobile Web Site is Great (except for one thing) last June. That app was great about providing access to information about EPA programs, but frequently what you also need to know about an organization, if you really need to interact with its products or services, is the name and contact information for someone to talk to.
I’m still amazed at how “opaque” government websites are about contacting “live” people. If there is a contact or call center listed, the center’s services are often built around helping people with transactions that are standardized or repetitive. Anything outside these requires engaging with a live human — if you can reach one.
Another complaint I have is when an agency initiates a blog or discussion group to supplement its traditional website in order to do a better job of engaging more frequently or personally with its target audiences. Sometimes the author of a timely blog post is anonymous or a name is provided with no contact information. Someone interested in contacting the author of the blog post then has to jump through hoops to find someone to talk with.
This gets us back to making organizational charts available for government agencies and their programs. Yes, keeping org charts up-to-date is a chore. Personnel and organizations are always changing. The chart and its information need to be updated regularly for them to be of any use. I’m under no illusion this would be a simple process.
On the other hand, doing so might go a long way towards fighting the bad reputation that so many “faceless bureaucracies” have.
One criticism of making names and contact information more accessible is that making roles and responsibilities public could open up a lot more people to getting phone calls. This might be tough for government employees who are not accustomed to dealing with the public.
Based on my own experience with customer support and service operations in the private sector, I think the issue of “demand” is something that can be managed. Commercial organizations do it all the time. We all know about instances where voicemail boxes are permanently full or where repeated emails messages get no response. Eventually people realize that, if a government agency has a defined role regarding its products or services, it has to be ready to communicate with those who either receive or participate in the provision of those products or services. Failure to do so consistently leads to angry letters and emails to congressional representatives.
If the agency has to communicate in the course of doing business it’s in its best interest to make its communications as efficient and effective as possible. Since so many communications are initiated by the public, making sure the right person or program is contacted right from the start is the simplest and most effective way to reduce time and confusion.
Will making a current and functionally detailed org chart available to the public accomplish all this by itself? Of course not. But it’s a start.
Making sure that a meaningful org chart is available, precisely because it is a public statement about responsibility, might just be one of the simplest and most direct methods we have for promoting government program transparency and accountability.
To see more articles on the topic of transparency go here.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dennis is a Washington DC area consultant specializing in collaborative project management and new technology adoption. His clients have included the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the US Environmental Protection Agency, Jive Software, the National Library of Medicine, the National Academy of Engineering, Social Media Today and Oracle, and the World Bank Group. Contact Dennis via email at email@example.com or by phone at 703-402-7382.
I posted this intro on GovLoop and Google+ on November 30:
One of the first things I do when starting on a new consulting project is to ask to see the client’s internal organization charts.
I’m aware of their limitations. Organizations differ greatly in how well they manage and use organization charts. Some provide a recent PowerPoint slide made by one of the senior executives. It’s usually out of date. Some have a semi automated system tied to HR software that automatically updates and draws an organization chart that is automatically posted on internal website. It’s usually out of date, too.
Organization charts can communicate how organizations view themselves structurally and hierarchically. However, given the importance of informal communications, political influence, and the increasing use of social media and collaboration tools inside the firewall, the solid and dotted lines on the charts often don’t really reflect the reality of how the organization operates.
Despite their limitations, I do think that organizations charts are potentially useful in communicating with people outside, especially if an effort is made to make them accurate and to keep them up to date. In “Better Org Charts Will Improve Government Agency Transparency and Accountability” I discuss their potential role in improving how government agencies communicate with the individuals and groups they serve. I’d be very interested in getting your reaction to this, either here or there.