Monday, June 25, 2012

Silos in City Government

The reading “The Secrets to Successful Strategy Execution” lists 17 fundamental traits that make an organization effective in implementing its strategy. Decision rights and information flow are stressed as being more important than organizational restructuring, which may yield results in the short term but inevitably sees an organization resort to its old habits in the long run.  

On the strength index, the free flow of information across organizational boundaries is ranked at 4th with a rating of 58%. When information does not flow horizontally across different parts of an organization, units behave like silos, forfeiting the transfer of best practices. Each unit communicates and plans in its own way, taking tremendous energy for one unit to understand another units’ priorities, expending energy and time on tailoring its communications to each one. It’s a scenario I have encountered recently as an employee of City government.

A pivotal issue faced by urban cities such as Pittsburgh is the puzzle posed by vacant and abandoned structures. The traditional tool used for vacant buildings has been demolition, which leaves behind vacant lots that negatively affect the property values of surrounding structures, and can create a domino effect wherein those neighboring properties are similarly abandoned in a cycle that cannibalizes communities. With demolition costs averaging about $10k-$15k per building, and in a City with limited resources in a tough economic climate, which structures to tear down becomes a strategic decision for the City’s administration, departments, bureaus and authorities.

Buildings must first be condemned by the Bureau of Building Inspection (BBI) before they are prioritized and placed on a demo list. Input is received from City government’s various departments/authorities on which structures to target. What often happens is that information does not flow across these governmental divisions on what should and what shouldn’t come down. What one division claims is a building that can be prepped for demolition, another claims could be restored and put back on the tax rolls. It is the compartmentalized ‘silo’ effect described by the reading.

As an example, about a year ago, a community organization in the historic Manchester neighborhood of the Northside contacted the councilperson I work for with protestations that historic structures had been placed on the City’s demolition list. These were mostly brick buildings with unique features that, although abandoned and in disrepair, had strong structural foundations that could be stabilized and salvaged to save and preserve the neighborhood’s historic character.  BBI had determined, without input from the community, the Councilperson or the administration, that the buildings needed to come down, when there were other structures throughout the City in much further states of decay with no historic value that did indeed need to be demolished for safety reasons. Luckily, the Councilperson was able to convene all parties in a series of meetings to prioritize the buildings that should be saved and that should be demolished. With input from community groups and with assistance from the administration, a list was drafted where structures that posed serious public safety risks were placed at the top of the demolition list, while the community group was charged with the task of coming up with plans and financing to rehab and salvage the historic structures that had been saved.

To break through these silos and ease the horizontal flow of information, the Department of City Planning recently proposed a plan dubbed Preserve Pittsburgh which offers a template for the condemnation and demolition of abandoned structures in Pittsburgh. The goal is to streamline the process by defining a clear set of criteria and steps that entities such as the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Housing Authority, BBI, Public Works, the Administration and City Council must follow to either place a structure on the demo list or to keep it off the demo list. It is a positive and hopeful step at improving the horizontal flow of information and reduce the silo effect in City government.

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