The Balbec Housing Department Field Study

This study will describe and analyze aspects of the culture of a U.S. city housing department. The names of the city and people involved have been disguised. The city of “Balbec,” with a population over 800,000, had an elected mayor and a city council. The city employed around 9,000 people in numerous departments and agencies, including police, fire, motor vehicles, sanitation, parks, property records, building inspection, animals and pets, environment, public library, human rights, clerk of courts, tax collector and housing. Some departments and agencies were unionized, but the Housing Department was not. The chain of command was department head, directors, chiefs, managers and employees. Some smaller areas did not have a chief. The following examples illustrate the cultural issues our participants raised.

Creating the Official Culture via Acts of Commission

The performance perspective focuses on leaders conducting certain acts of commission in order to create the desired official culture. We readily found evidence of such acts. Even in this well-planned area, we also encountered some acts of omission.

Official Culture Statements

Balbec’s leaders had been trying to secure business relocations for some time. The city government was advertised as being “business friendly.” The local cost of living was billed as being among the least expensive in the country. Employers were also informed Balbec had a highly trained and well-qualified pool of potential workers.

Balbec’s mission statement was to “Serve our citizens, overcome problems and look to the future.” The vision statement was “To makethe city government sensitive to evolving needs and decisive in taking action, and the city a great place to be for both businesses and families.” Citizens were to be thought of as “customers.” A set of shared values had been set forth:

valuing diversity, planning for the long-term, effectively informing and educating customers, treating colleagues respectfully, always being honest, encouraging innovation, training to further our mission, practicing teamwork, pleasing customers, directly addressing problems instead of making excuses, and exercising sound judgment in meeting customer needs.

These statements were acts of commission that reflected the desired official culture. They match what the private and public sector performance perspective literatures recommend.

This city government lacked certain things that are commonly found in corporations. Businesses normally have far greater resources for operations, training, positions and salaries (Ingersoll & Adams, 1992:143). During our study, staffing and budgetary resources were tight. In the next mayoral race, several candidates pledged not to raise taxes in their campaigns. Those advocating the public sector transformation mantras have ignored resource differentials.

Most companies run an orientation that introduces the official culture. These messages are often later reinforced and expanded upon in newsletters, speeches and ceremonies. Our participants had generally not been formally introduced to the official culture. Some had joined the city prior to the official statements being authored. Others had not attended an orientation. Our participants were aware of the need to work as a team and serve the community. To produce high-quality results, employees also knew they had to be a cooperative partner with contractors. The desirability of being friendly and completing training were also mentioned. These “values” were picked up from daily work interactions, not an orientation or official cultural document.

In the private sector, organization culture has been likened to a marketing branding campaign (Sartain, 2005). The employees were the primary audience, while stock analysts, stockholders and customers were secondary audiences. In our housing study, the primary audiences for the official cultural statements were business leaders and voters. Due to the omissions mentioned above, the employees must be considered a secondary audience.

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