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interstitial bureaucracy: high performing governmental agencies operating in ineffective governments

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Back in February (which now seems like an eternity from a fast-disappearing alternate reality), sociologist and organizational researcher Erin Metz McDonnell virtually visited my graduate Organizations, Markets, and the State course to talk about her research on high performing governmental agencies in Ghana.   McDonnell initiated an electrifying and dynamic discussion about the applicability of her research findings.  She also shared her experience with the opaque process of how researchers form projects that contribute to public knowledge.

Many of her observations about organizing practices are particularly timely now that the US and other nation-states face extreme challenges that demand more proactive, rather than retroactive, preparations for pandemic conditions.

Here’s a digest of what we learned:

  • Why Ghana? Prior to graduate school, McDonnell went to Ghana on a Fulbright award.  These experiences helped her question conventional organizational orthodoxy, including generalized statements about “states do this” built on research conducted in North America.  Using such observed disjunctures between the organizational canon and her lived experience, McDonnell refined research questions.  When she returned to Ghana, she identified high performing governmental units and undertook interviews.

 

  • Why did McDonnell include other cases, including 19th century US, early 21st century China, mid-20th century Kenya, and early 21st century Nigeria? McDonnell discussed the importance of using research in other countries and time periods to further flesh out dimensions of interstitial bureaucracy.

 

  • How did McDonnell coin the term interstitial bureaucracy? Reviewers didn’t like McDonnell’s originally proposed term to describe the habits and practices of effective bureaucrats.  “Subcultural bureaucracy” was perceived as too swinging 1960s, according to reviewers.

 

  • What can Ghana reveal about N. American’s abhorrence of organizational slack? McDonnell explained that high performing bureaucracies in Ghana reveal the importance of slack, which has been characterized as wasteful in N. American’s “lean” organizations.  Cross training and “redundancies” help organizations to continue functioning when workers are sick or have difficulties with getting to work.

 

  • Isn’t staff turn-over, where people leave after a few years for better paying jobs in the private sector or elsewhere, a problem? Interestingly, McDonnell considered staff turn-over a small cost to pay – she opined that securing qualified, diligent workers, even for a few years, is better than none.  (Grad students added that some career bureaucrats become less effective over time)

 

  • What can governmental agencies do to protect against having to hire (ineffective) political appointees? McDonnell explained how specifying relevant credentials in field (i.e., a degree in chemistry) can ensure the likelihood of hiring qualified persons to staff agencies.

 

For more, please check out McDonnell’s new book Patchwork Leviathan: Pockets of Bureaucratic Effectiveness in Developing States from Princeton University Press.  Also, congrats to McDonnell on her NSF Career award!