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Browsing Blog Henrik Bechmann's Blog (currently on 21-Aug-1212)
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Irony, Dysfunction, and Delusion
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Consequences: functional centralization and technocracy lead to poor working conditions

21-Aug-2012 [5705]

A few years ago Parks, Forestry and Recreation decided to centralize along functional lines. Thus there are functional reporting relationships straight from City Hall to the (literal) ground (like aquatics vs. recreation vs. skating vs. facilities vs. forestry etc.). The vision was to create a "machine" with policy creation at the center, that would translate into procedures, which would be carried out ("compliance") by more or less interchangeable people on the ground. A technocratic dream, with little care for ongoing devlopment of front-line human skill, talent, experience, judgement and teamwork. Clean and tidy, but thoroughly naive and dysfunctional.

Here's a list of people who have responsibility for Ward 18 parks, for instance:

At this writing there were 14 (it's a little hard to keep up). Keep in mind that in some way, front-line staff in the park have to relate to these people, taking their instructions, or answering questions about their performance for reports that they don't see. And these supervisors and coordinators change frequently, so they often don't know the staff or even each other. In practice it's pretty chaotic.

Indeed for the front-line people, it's confusing and distressing. They're given to understand that their main responsibility is to "comply" with policies and procedures, knowing that they'll get sanctioned if they don't. Of course there are so many procedures, reviewed by so many "bosses", they're never quite sure what's coming at them. They're like those lab rats in university that used to get randomly shocked to see what would happen. The result:

  • stress
  • constant distraction
  • demoralization
  • even paranoia

In short, a dreadful work environment that tends to punish not reward, and certainly doesn't encourage initiative.

Ultimately, this leads to a lot of inefficiencies, lost opportunities, and finally apathy. The better ones learn to game the system. Some even try to make contributions in spite of it all.

It was all predictable, and really isn't that hard to understand. The centralized technocratic approach is by definition alienating, fragmented, and has little if any reference to context. This is known to drain purpose and meaning out of work, the very things that lead to motivated employees. The lack of control by staff of their own work is also known to degrade morale and interfere with productivity. Trust between staff and their supervisors, one of the basic requirements of a productive work environment, isn't factored in, and turns out to be low, if not negative.

Plus the line staff are discouraged from interacting with each other about work issues, let alone with the community that they're assisting. They're even told to refrain from discussing work matters with their local City Councillor. Recently Recreation staff in Ward 18 were ordered not to speak to wading pool staff (run by Aquatics), except through a supervisor. That's really inappropriate in a modern setting.

This environment has little if any soul or excitement.

By contrast, my general reading consistently points to good coaching, reliance on "autonomy, mastery (skill development), purpose", or "engage, enable, energize", trust, teamwork, and great communication, for productive employees. Which happens to be how Ward 18 park rec staff have run themselves for over a decade, and why these parks have been so successful. Now that's being dismantled.

In short, PFR has chosen the exact opposite of productive management techniques.

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