May – Staff Versus Line Functions

Line positions are the staff directly doing the work with the customers. Staff positions are those in a support role such as HR, IT, Finance, Legal etc. Having seen the staff functions operating in government for many years, both as a department head and as a consultant – it is clear there is trouble in river city.

Staff positions are intended to be “help” positions, but in government, many end up seeing their job as control positions. The private sector has worked on this issue by reducing the size of staff functions and moving them into line departments. A few large city planning and building departments have managed to have their own in-department legal, IT, and even partially HR but this is not the norm. A few very small communities let the line departments do some or all of these functions because they simply do not have the staff to do them. However, for most planning and building departments, you have to learn how to work with these staff functions. Below are a few horror stories and a few tips. Please email me your good and bad experiences.

  1. Get An Expert On Your Side
    In my last government job with a staff of 350, I had a staff function within the department that worked with the external staff departments. To be successful, I knew I had to aggressively work with these departments. So, I hired a person to run my internal staff function that had previously worked both in HR and Finance and knew how to maneuver with these departments. You need to decide what you need to do and then be very aggressive with these external functions.
  2. Legal
    Most legal departments seem to feel that their primary goal is to keep the community from being sued and telling you that what you want to do is not legal. It is easy to get a “no” from a legal department. Try to use a different approach. Tell them what you want to do and ask them how to do it. Often another community in the same state is already doing it.There are two other issues with many legal departments. Some want to review all the staff reports. Try to stop this and stop asking for so many legal opinions. Planners and building officials should be smart enough to know what is legal. Secondly, legal reviews of agreements and contracts often take too long. If it is a staffing issue, suggest the use of outside counsel and agree to include legal review in your fee structure so they can become properly staffed.
  3. Human Resources (HR)
    It is not unusual that it takes HR 3 to 6 months to fill a vacant position. It seems to me that there should be a week or two overlap between the staff leaving and the new staff. I have never seen an HR department willing to do this, so this may require some discussions at the elected official or city manager level – be aggressive on this one.Another standard HR issue is the hiring process. Many are still stuck in the notion that an hour interview by an outside panel can select the best candidates. This simply defies any real logic. What is needed are multiple interviews and extensive reference checking. For higher level positions it is not unusual for the community to use a search firm. I have participated twice on panels to interview the search firm’s selections. Not being satisfied with the candidates, I asked to see the list of those rejected. Since I knew many of the candidates through reputation or the profession, I found many of the better candidate were screened out.
  4. Finance
    My first recommendation is to get as many of your functions as possible out of the General Fund and into an Enterprise Fund. I have never seen a planning or building function that could compete with police and fire in a budget debate. Finance departments seem to be the worst at seeing their role as control. I asked one to help determine how to get more dollars into the planning and building function. The response was, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” My response was you d#*& well need to get a dog in that fight.
  5. Information Technology
    Typical IT departments have the same issues as other staff function. First, they may be underfunded so you need to help fund them through the fees. Secondly, they can’t get to your priorities while they focus on the police and fire departments. Another issue is GIS. Generally GIS started in the planning department and as it became useful to most department, migrated to IT. Often that resulted in service to planning being diminished. The solution here is to have a least one GIS staff remain in the planning department. Fortunately, many new planners have GIS skills that can help out.

​Please give me your stories. I sure feel better getting some of this off my chest.

the Management Doctor


Reader Response

In the large organization I work for now we have some success in having support functions within our department (I am not working in a planning and zoning department). There can be issues because, while these functions are within the department, these employees receive directives from the central administrative unit for their functions. Even with support functions housed in a department, managers still need to communicate with and educate the central administrative  staff (and the support staff housed in the department) to keep the support functions focused on supporting the needs of the department and prevent the efforts from drifting into “just say no” mode.

In my previous work in a smaller local government (in an engineering/public works department), we did not have support services within the department, but had very few issues because we had very direct lines of communication with those departments. We had a completely different relationship with legal services because we had outside counsel on retainer rather than in-house counsel. With outside counsel, the manager and board took a keen interest in controlling legal costs, so routine work did not require legal review. I would bring issues to legal counsel when I was concerned about potential liability.

The attitude of legal counsel was also different – they saw their role as a member of the team who was responsible for finding ways to help us accomplish our goals. At times I would be concerned about potential litigation and legal council would take the role of reassuring me about our legal standing. In more than one case I remember legal counsel taking a “F-em, let them sue us” attitude — which you would never get from in-house counsel. Then again, the outside counsel knew that they would be billing  at their hourly rate if the agency did get sued.

Benjamin