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In times of crisis, local government managers face pressure to implement changes that improve organizational performance. To successfully carry out those changes, is it better to centralize decision making with the chief executive? Or push the decision making down to middle managers and front-line employees? A recent study published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory offers insights into this age-old question using data from a national survey of U.S. city governments.

Arguments on Centralization and Decentralization

To understand how de/centralization facilitates change implementation, three aspects must be considered: information, coordination, and time management.

  • Managers rely on consistent and accurate information to assess the need and type of change.
  • Successful change requires coordinating actions and marshaling resources in a unified manner.
  • Managers need to consider the decision-making environment—unlike regular times that afford lengthy deliberations, quick decisions are crucial in times of crisis to prevent problems from escalating.

Centralization supporters argue that it provides clear communication channels through which information flows efficiently and gets screened and condensed at various managerial points. Another advantage is that a central authority secures coordination by defining roles, setting directions, and providing maximum control over operations. Assuming that centralization does promote efficiency in communication and coordination, it can help managers reach and implement decisions quickly.

However, a key argument against centralization is the top executive’s limitations. It is unrealistic to expect a single individual to process all information needed. Also, employees have power stemming from their expert knowledge. They can choose to delay communication, pass on inaccurate information, or only share the pieces that serve their interests.

Opponents call for decentralizing decision making for more responsiveness. Employee participation also builds trust, reduces information distortion, and limits change resistance. Despite the benefits, managers may not always be able to decentralize every decision. Some situations need a form of central authority, such as when managing a crisis.

More a Matter of Degrees than Absolutes

Instead of two opposing structures, managers may view decision making as a continuum. At one end is a highly centralized structure where authority rests typically with the chief executive. At the opposite end is a highly decentralized structure where all employees participate in all major decisions. The upper middle is moderately centralized, where the department or unit heads are involved in decision making. The lower middle is moderately decentralized, where employees can participate in decisions that affect them.

Middle > Extremes

A decision context is important. Times of crisis challenge regular patterns of communication, coordination, and time management. Information flow increases, coordination becomes difficult, and quick action is crucial. Complete centralization may not be possible. If a decision maker has typically limited time and attention span, it only worsens during a crisis. Similarly, employee participation needs times and resources that may not be available during or in the aftermath of a crisis.

Managers can get the best of the two structures by using a balanced decision approach: the efficiency of centralization and the expert knowledge and enhanced decision quality of decentralization. They can strategically adjust the right balance to fit the situations they face.

The Type of Change Matters

Besides context, managers need to consider the type of change. For example, reorganization can include dissolving/merging units and creating new procedures and processes. These initiatives change job descriptions, functional relationships, and all HR functions. Their disruptive nature triggers employee resistance.

For those changes, managers can follow a moderately centralized structure that includes middle managers in decision making. Their influence over subordinates ensures maximum control and speed to direct resources, resolve conflict, and coordinate action. They can also help the chief executive process more information without compromising timely decision making.

In contrast, when change is less disruptive, moderate levels of employee participation can help implementation; for example, adopting a new IT system arguably has more favorable outcomes than reorganization. It can help employees do their jobs better by facilitating information generation, integration, and sharing. As a result, they are more likely to support its implementation.

Conclusion

When thinking about organizational decision making, it is common to assume that there are two options: to centralize or decentralize. Approaching the issue differently may help us break through this binary thinking. The question should not be whether to centralize or decentralize, but how to find the balance and behave strategically to adapt to environmental and organizational contingencies.

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HALA ALTAMIMI is an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas (haltamimi1@ku.edu).

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