5.5 Silos in Government

The complexities of the internal workings of government do not stop with the official hierarchy, inefficiency, and the various underground gorilla, and behind the back networks. Within the bureaucracy you mostly work “horizontally” in that you primarily work with others at the same level of the organization. Depending on the position you have you may interact with customers at the bottom of the organization, and with offices above yours in the bureaucracy, but usually not with those far above or below you. Piercing through the horizontal planes of the organizational hierarchy are programs or offices that get their funding and/or direction directly from the top of the organization. We in government informally called these, “silos”.

Silos are often walled off from the rest of the organization, but in order to explain them, let us back up a bit to explain how funding is distributed inside the government using VA as an example. For most existing programs, funding for the upcoming year is based on the funding from the last year. The funding model is tweaked each year to reflect the latest priorities and the funds flow down through the organization into the various fund control points without too much difficulty. There are, of course, a lot of discussions and points of contention, but overall it is straightforward because the decision makers are using the past as a starting point. New programs pose a problem. Often new programs are created as a response to a scandal or a specific problem that Congress or the Administration wants to target. The total amount of funding provided is based on input from the Department, but is often set externally. The challenge then becomes how to distribute the funds within VA. One way to do it would be to just add it to the funding going out to the various offices and facilities with instructions to spend it as intended. However, that would make it hard to determine how much was actually spent on solving the problem. The preferred way to distribute the new funding is to create a separate funding stream for the new program. If the new program aligns well with an existing office, then that office manages the funding going into that “silo”. If the program does not exist, or if the Congress or the Administration want the program managed by a dedicated office, then a new office is created using some of the funding. (This explains why VA has a Rural Health office, but no Urban or Suburban Health offices.) After a few years, management can see where and how the money was spent, and can then decide how to merge the program’s funding into the normal funding streams–unless legislation or executive actions require the funding to continue to be separately distributed. Sometimes, the new silo remains in control of its funding, but in other cases the funding stream may be merged into existing funding streams. In either case, the silo still continues to pierce through the horizontal layers of the organization, and the office responsible for the program may continue to issue directives and program guidance through the silo. Some silos are not really much of a problem. They do provide program guidance and are sort of like a benign tumor that could be removed but do not affect the actual work. Other silos do dictate how to do things, and can either be a strong force for good, or a force that kills innovation and defies common sense.

To government employees working only in the official organization plane with occasional silo interaction, the silos are just a part of the job, and a way for managers to perhaps get some funds for a pet project that can be twisted to fit the silo’s intent. To an underground gorilla network they can be a useful way to get to the top of the organization, especially if a silo manager is a part of the underground. For those at the top of the organization, silos are a key way that they can see what is going on at the bottom of the organization. The problem with that is that looking down through a silo is like looking through a tube or a straw. You only can see what it at the bottom of the straw. As I mentioned earlier, silos are often created in response to a problem or scandal. If, for example, a VA construction project goes far over budget, a task force “silo” might be created to study the construction process. If the problems were all a result of the construction process then that would be fine. If, however, poor planning and the unintended consequences of some procurement reform laws cause the problems, then it is unlikely that zeroing in on the construction process will reveal the real problems; let alone correct them. Another factor is that while the silo may be created from the top and inserted into the organization from the top down, the organization itself does help to position the bottom of the silo by, for example, who they allow to be interviewed by a task force investigating the problem.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that some silos are not created by external funding or mandates. Some are started and maintained by staff who have a passion for what they do, and who manage to create little empires within the organization.

Visualize a 3-Dimensional organization chart. The approved organizational chart is multi-level hierarchy. Each level of the organizational chart is a vast horizontal plane consisting of position boxes and supervisory relationships to the levels above and below. Piercing through the horizontal layers are silos created by eternal demands and funding. Plus there are smaller silos connecting some horizontal planes. Some of these silos even intersect and overlap.

As long as Congress and the Executive Branch continue to try to fix problems by creating specialized programs, the government will be burdened with funding and operational structures that are beyond the control of the managers in charge of normal operations. These separate funding streams and targeted programs make managing government more difficult while making it appear to the public that Congress and the Executive Branch are helping to properly manage the 4th Branch.

All of these complexities make the work environment complex, and even a little scary…


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