Blurring the lines: when conflicted mandates undermine agency performance

By David Donaldson

Thursday January 17, 2019

Choice and choosing a direction in life or business using the rooad metaphore and highway sign with a fork shaped traffic lane showing the concept of dilema and selecting the right option.

A single agency regulating and promoting the same industry is a recipe for frustrated staff and poor performance. What can agencies do about conflicting mandates?

When the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown occurred in 2011, some pointed the finger at Japan’s “culture of complicity” around nuclear safety.

The national regulator, known as the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, was responsible for both oversight and promotion of the nuclear power industry.

The political and financial influence of the power companies led the regulator to neglect safety. The utilities and their political backers were concerned expensive repairs and renovations on ageing facilities would curb the construction of new power stations. This led to NISA ignoring clear risk factors, such as placing backup generators where they would be susceptible to flooding in the event of a tsunami.

Similarly, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, many honed in on the Minerals Management Service’s responsibility for not only enforcement but revenue collection and industry development. The United States government eventually divided up the “three conflicting missions” in an effort to strengthen safety.

Such disasters provide a dramatic illustration of the risks of giving public agencies conflicting goals, but less explosive examples also come to mind: agriculture or mining are often lumped together with the environment portfolio, while staff in the human services or immigration portfolios might be given the task of both helping and cracking down on clients.

Priorities and performance

Conflicting mandates tend to “undermine performance”, forcing the organisation into both supporting and restraining the same targets, argues Christopher Carrigan, assistant professor of public policy and public administration at George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration.

This can occur when the conflict prompts the agency to choose to neglect certain goals in the pursuit of others. Sometimes this is because political power clearly resides with one side. In the case of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, the influence of the nuclear power industry pushed the regulator to overlook safety concerns despite previous incidents demonstrating poor compliance, for example.

On other issues it may be less clear which goal takes priority, such as when immigration departments are expected to facilitate the supply of new workers while rooting out undocumented migrants. Parts of the welfare system appear to be designed as much to punish beneficiaries as they are to help people get back on their feet.

“Agency goal performance improves when employees are clear about how their work connects with the agency’s goals and priorities.”

Such conflict makes it inherently difficult to fulfil all targets. It’s also detrimental to performance because it confuses staff and hurts morale.

“Precise goals sharpen individual focus and increase effort,” Carrigan wrote in a paper published in Public Administration Review last year.

“In contrast, multiple goals, especially when they conflict, force employees to spend time clarifying what their objective is, which is inefficient and undermines motivation by making it difficult for these same employees to connect work to outcomes.”

Carrigan’s study found that employees of US government agencies with conflicting mandates were less likely to agree with the statement, “I know how my work relates to the agency’s goals and priorities”. The agencies themselves tended to score worse in performance audits when subject to conflicting mandates.

“Agency goal performance improves when employees are clear about how their work connects with the agency’s goals and priorities,” he says.

“Moreover, relative employee clarity seems to help explain why agencies balancing conflicting relationships with program targets exhibit inferior performance.”

Clarify and separate

Of course, such conflicting targets are often the product of political choices — a problem public servants can do little to solve.

Japan’s NISA did not fail on its own but was merely one link in a national political culture thoroughly entangled in the promotion of nuclear power. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, Carrigan has expressed doubt that splitting up the Minerals Management Service would decrease the risk of another oil spill, suggesting the political and public pressure to promote the energy industry is a key driver of government action.

But it’s not always so straightforward, with many conflicts resulting more from bureaucracy than politics.

Carrigan’s advice is to clarify for staff how they contribute to the organisation’s goals. Focusing on managers is probably the most efficient means of doing so.

“Clarifying objectives for uncertain personnel is largely within the control of capable agency leaders,” Carrigan thinks.

“Recognizing that the mere existence of conflicts makes it less likely personnel will know what they are working toward can place a spotlight on this potential blind spot so the organization’s leaders can remain attentive to fostering certainty in such cases.”

Choosing which goal takes priority might improve clarity, but it also introduces the possibility some parties will lose out.

“Multiple goals, especially when they conflict, force employees to spend time clarifying what their objective is…”

“Creating a pecking order for the conflicted goals means those assigned lower priority may be neglected despite having important implications for social welfare,” he notes.

And beware — where there’s too much on an agency’s plate it can be tempting to focus on the data most available.

“An ordering becomes particularly troublesome if it is based on which goals are more easily measured or achieved,” Carrigan says.

Creating barriers within the organisation to insulate conflicting functions might help too.

“This separation can be achieved through revisions to the formal organizational chart or by informal means, including delinking processes and information technology systems or capitalizing on the divergent professional norms of the agency’s workforce to create divisions between the conflicted units,” he believes.

But it’s not always easy to resolve such conflicts, and attempting to do so can also harm performance. Any attempt to fix the problem by erecting barriers should also take into account the cost of decreased cooperation and potential for tension between units.

These challenges may help explain why conflicted agencies tend to perform poorly, suggesting that while the core problem can be mitigated, the fix creates its own problems.

“Considering the unintended consequences, it is not especially remarkable that conflicted agencies perform worse holding employees’ work‐goals clarity constant,” Carrigan argues.

“For in creating clarity, other problems including goal neglect and coordination difficulties may bubble up to the surface, dragging down a conflicted agency’s performance regardless.”

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