(Last Updated On: January 24, 2017)

Silos. Not the literal type you use for tasks like storing and separating grain or housing nuclear missiles. No, I’m referring to figurative silos. The kind that separates people from working effectively together. You find them in many groups and organizations where work gets divvied up perhaps too rigidly. Greensboro city government for example. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself…

It makes sense to put together people working on similar tasks. In a grocery store setting for instance, it is helpful to have all your marketing people in the same department. And you want your food service people in the kitchen to facilitate their working together. This becomes problematic though if the marketing people and the food service people don’t talk regularly with one another. Then, from time to time, one department winds up pursuing an objective that is at odds with an initiative being pursued by the other department. This is dysfunctional.

An organizational silo is formed when a group of workers within a larger organization become insular. The silo might consist of workers within a given department. It might consist of workers of a certain level, regardless of department, such as all the managers in the organization. It can be any group of workers that develop more loyalty to their subgroup than to the overall organization. They usually become resistant to change, creating barriers to cooperation with other parts of the organization. This manifests in our city government in various ways.

One way cooperation is limited is due to departmental silos. Each department has its own staff/experts working on their own objectives. However, life in the city crosses department boundaries. As an example, take transportation planning and land-use planning. We have a different department handling each, but each affects the other. For instance, one objective of our Transportation department is to promote the use of mass transit, walking and bicycling. Achieving this requires sympathetic land-use ordinances. But those ordinances are the purview of the Planning department. Sometimes the two departments are working in sync; other times they aren’t. Before recent changes in State statutes Greensboro’s land-use policies encouraged annexation of areas not even contiguous to the pre-existing city boundaries. This presented a major obstacle to the transportation policy of promoting mass transit, etc. You can’t economically operate a bus system when there are miles between stops.

But even when Transportation and Planning are working together, there’s still another group of silos to contend with. City government can be divided into three main groupings: City workers (paid staff), Political workers (elected officials/City Council), and Volunteer workers (members of the Boards and Commissions). Their activities obviously overlap, but Greensboro has no clear parameters for these interactions. Each is in a silo, pursuing their own agendas – sometimes in unison, sometimes not.

Two years ago I was part of a group that lobbied City Council to actively facilitate and promote the use of solar energy in Greensboro. Our presentation was enthusiastically received by City Council. They directed the City Manager to come back with a plan to make Greensboro the most solar friendly city in North Carolina. The Manager said he’d be back with a plan the following month. He then assigned it to an Assistant City Manager who in turn delegated it to a staff member. The staff member more or less ignored the assignment for over half a year. It was only after I complained to an interested City Councilmember who then contacted the Manager that the project moved forward. What astounded me was the lack of accountability throughout the organization. The staff member just ignored the assignment he was given. The Assistant City Manager didn’t follow up with the staff person to see where the report was. The City Manager didn’t follow up with his Assistant to see what happened to the report, even though it was months beyond the date he had promised to have it for City Council. And the Mayor didn’t follow up with the City Manager to see where the overdue report was. Apparently everybody was in their own silo, unmotivated to follow through on an initiative that wasn’t their idea.

The Sustainability Council ran into roadblocks with ideas they had, even though they were following the directive they’d been given to pick a handful of projects to pursue. One project was to establish a City “Green Team” to facilitate the dissemination of sustainability practices. The idea was for each department to elect/appoint a representative to the Green Team. Then, if anyone in any department came up with a practice that reduced energy usage, saved resources, saved money, etc., it would be posted on the “Green Team listserv”. Each rep would then share it with their own department, thus spreading the good practice quickly through the entire organization. Well, once again staff was resistant to implementing something new that came from outside their silo. And even though each of the five City Councilmembers I shared the proposal with were enthusiastic about it, not one was willing to go beyond their silo and put it forth. Actually, one Councilmember did ask about its status during a Committee hearing. Unfortunately the staff person who responded said it had been effectively implemented, even though it hadn’t. And that was that. Staff avoided a potential silo breach. A win for the silo; a loss for Greensboro. This is an impact of silos – people put their small group loyalty ahead of loyalty to the overall body.

The Sustainability Council also recently worked to promote the installation of water filling stations at City facilities and other locations around town. These would allow people to reuse water containers and inexpensively get purified water. This would promote better health and reduce landfill and recycling costs. But the Sustainability Council finally gave up on the effort, frustrated with the lack of cooperation from city staff. In general it seems the Sustainability Council ran afoul of the silo system by having proposals that would involve multiple departments working together. This is at least part of why most professional reviews and comprehensive plans tend to get filed away and forgotten, or at least put on a back burner. Namely, implementation would require inter-departmental activity and cooperation – something the silo mentality avoids.

To overcome silos’ inherent resistance to interference by “others” requires: strong direction from leadership to allow and encourage increased communication and interaction between the different groups in the organization.   This involves increased opportunities for the members of the different groups to meet, interact and exchange ideas. Staff needs to more freely share data with the other sectors of city government. This means sacrificing some control of their agenda to the Boards and Commissions they’re supposed to be working with. These are generalized statements. To be fair, some staff members are forthcoming and open to working with non-staff. Different departments do work together at times. All in all though, at least from my non-staff perspective, volunteering in Greensboro city government is mostly frustrating and provides limited opportunity for effectiveness. The silos are too well protected.

Landau’s column appears the fourth Wednesday of every month. This column was aided by Howard Taylor. Before retiring Taylor consulted in business process improvement for large companies.