Organizational Structure

Dear Management Doctor:

What would be your pick for the top ten communities (cities or counties) who have, in your opinion, the most progressive organizational structures for servicing their communities?

Hank Epstein
Sarasota County, FL

Dear Hank,

There is no good answer to your question, so I will say it depends. I spend quite a bit of time on this question in my management class. Here are some of my thoughts:

  1. The organizational structure is not the key ingredient as to how well the city is operating. I have seen merged structures work well and merged structures not work any better than non-merged. I have also seen non-merged structures work well. The old notion has been, give me the authority and I can make it work. While authority in some cases is helpful, it is an old fashioned word. Contemporary management deals more with everyone being on the same team in a cooperative fashion.
  2. To some extent the best organizational structures depend on the size of the community. All else being equal I always recommend having planning and building in the same department. But, take a city like Los Angeles that has an extremely large building function and the sheer size alone speaks to keeping them separate. One of our clients had building in the fire department. We would never recommend this but it was working so well that we left it alone. I have also seen very large cities where merging redevelopment or housing with planning may also not work, because of the size and need for redevelopment or housing specialization.
  3. Should current planning and long-range planning be in the same department? Yes, yes, yes and yes. The only time I have seen the split work well is where a strong mayor or city manager uses long-range planning as an integral part of their community strategy. But, this is rare.
  4. For small and mid-sized communities, I would merge planning and redevelopment.
  5. For small communities, I recommend that planning take on everything they can get their hands on, i.e. building, economic development, redevelopment, housing, transportation.
  6. Transportation, planning and long-range planning should always go together, but this is tough to sell and only happens in a few communities.
  7. A number of communities are now merging at least part of the engineering function with planning and building. This does have some advantages but often creates conflict with the other engineering functions. An option to this is to have the engineers located in the planning department and even attend the planning staff meetings. They report to the city engineer for content purposes but to the planning director for processing.
You can see this is a tough topic. You will see other articles on this on our website search engine.

I would encourage our readers to tell us why the organizational pattern they have in their community should make your top ten. Maybe even more instructive, why it shouldn't

The Management Doctor


Reader Responses

This is a response to Hank Epstein’s question about the best organizational structure. I am not going to nominate Williston as one of the “Top 10.” We are so small that structure is simple (daytime population = ~20,000, nightime population = ~8,300). But I do want to emphasize your statement that a small planning department should take on every function it can logically get.

Building is a state function in Vermont (or we’d have that, too), but our department enjoys great political credibility and support because we are not just regulators. Besides current and long range planning, we manage a watershed health program (stream corridor restoration, stormwater planning), the town’s primitive trails, and the open space acquisition program, including management. This is a big slate, even in a small town, but people see the planning department as making tangible contributions to the quality of life. It is a lot different to meet the planners in the context of volunteer riparian planting or trail maintenance projects than across the counter. Also, news coverage of our staff planting trees is far superior to having us show up only in stories about controversial developments. My next step here is to begin working with local nonprofits on housing projects. We need to be perceived as community-builders, not paper-pushers!

This also leads to another of your points. On Williston’s organizational chart, planning and public works appear completely separate. But in reality, we are about 40 feet apart and talk to each other virtually every day. We share CO and stormwater inspections and help each other out in budgeting (watershed health and our GIS function are both supported from both budgets, for example). Years ago, I consulted with a much larger city (ca 50,000) where this close, but informal, connection between planning and public works was equally effective.

Lee Nellis, AICP
Town of Williston, VT


Thank you for this succinct overview of the current state of organizational structures.

John Neunuebel
Sahuarita, AZ

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