Many companies use "sales per employee" or "customers per employee" as measures of productivity and efficiency. I’ve often wondered, and occasionally outright disputed, the wisdom of such metrics as the real bottom line is growth and cash. But while pondering such incongruities, I also wonder if administrative activities sometimes expand without regard for need or comparative analysis.
What the heck am I getting at? Well one example that I’ve always been curious about, especially after moving west a couple decades ago, is the structure of government. How much governance and oversight is really necessary to deliver a set amount of services? I’m talking more about structure and layers than outright employees, although the number of employees is often driven by structure… which I guess in a roundabout way is also pertinent to my point. Whatever that is.
So let’s take a look at something that’s admittedly on the extreme to illustrate that point.
In California, like most states, we have numerous counties. Those entities provide law enforcement to non-incorporated areas, as well as often basic public utilities and services. One of the counties in California is San Bernardino, which is west of Los Angeles. Here are some quick stats:
- Area: 20,105 square miles, roughly 215 miles by 150 miles
- Population: 2,028,013 in 2006
Now let’s take a look at some other geopolitical entities in the U.S.:
- Rhode Island area: 1,214 sq miles, population: 1,0617,000
- Delaware area: 2,044 sq miles, population: 853,000
- Hawaii area: 6,470 sq miles, population: 1,285,000
But here’s the kicker: there are 5 counties in Rhode Island, 3 in Delaware, and effectively 8 in Hawaii. When you can fit two Rhode Islands, three Delawares, Connecticut and Hawaii within the San Bernardino County area and still have a little open space left over, what the heck are those states doing with counties?
Is it simply a case of "county envy"? Since the larger states have counties, do they feel they must? Do they have a legacy sheriff school that must send it’s newly-minted sheriffs somewhere? It’s obviously not related to population either, as San Bernardino has almost twice the population of any of those states. I’d suggest following the lead of larger states, especially states like ours full of nuts and flakes, is not always a good idea.
Yes, states provide a different type of governance than counties. They represent the people at a federal level, they craft regulation after regulation and then go into battle with other states and the feds when those regulations create interstate conflict. State politicos also handle major projects like figuring out what design should be on a coin.
But in delivering real services, is there really a need for additional management and oversight layers to create counties, regardless of the population being served? Why wouldn’t some innovative politician in Delaware look outside of her state boundaries, see that county on the west coast called San Bernardino, and say "hey, if they can provide services for over two million souls, why do I need three counties?" Or to go even further, "perhaps we should merge with Connecticut or Massachusetts."
How many pencil-pushers, overseers, and policy-creators are needed to deliver a set amount of services… value… to a set number of people… customers? That’s a question not only for government, but for business and pretty much any organization. Do you need a monstrous office building in Detroit to hold all the overseers, or do you need a small non-descript office building in Washington DC like Danaher has?
Flatten your organization, eliminate what doesn’t need to be managed, train and give more authority to the folks that do the real work… who will be more efficient if they don’t have to ask and sell ever decision.