5 Obstacles to Better Public Sector Decision Making: Excessive Complexity

We can all share stories of difficult organizational dynamics and the way they impact the work we do. This is especially true in the government, where complexity, multiple bottom lines, and hierarchical structure create a myriad of problems. This dilemma is not because public sector employees are any less competent than elsewhere. Quite the contrary. Yet there are certain characteristics of the public sector which foster major roadblocks.

As a result, planning and decision-making suffer immensely.

This article will focus on the organizational dynamics in government, explain how they negatively impact planning and decision-making, and offer suggestions for improvement.

The complexity of the government

The government is highly complex. Far from a for-profit business that has a singular purpose (i.e., maximize profits), whereas the government is said to have as many ‘bottom lines’ as the scope of their charter and mission allows. Each mission, or aspect of its mission, adds a new layer of complexity. This characteristic, coupled with the sheer size of the organization, significantly impacts the structure. Many Federal government agencies, for example, are organized by multiple hierarchies of units and sub-units to carry out their work.

As a result of this complexity, their processes and data are also complex. Process and data must flow through multiple layers of functions, offices, security protocols and at times geographic locations. With processes, data, and people siloed, an individual’s ability to plan and make cross-cutting decisions is compromised. 

Perhaps the most interesting nuance of public sector change is that while an organizational structure may remain consistent over time, its leaders consistently and frequently change. In the higher echelons, political appointees are installed, and particularly in the military, leaders are being swapped in and out every one to three years.

All of this, along with added congressional oversight, creates a dynamic that makes change within these organizations very slow and deliberate.


These organizational dynamics create several “fractures” in the planning and decision-making processes, something we talk about at length in 5 Obstacles to Better Public Sector Decision Making: Organizational Disjointedness. Suffice it to say, the following realities are all too familiar to those who work in or with the government:

  • Processes are disconnected from each other: Because processes and data are being governed by different entities in the org structure, the orgs themselves become very process- and data-centric.
  • Org structures encourage a focus on process rather than outcomes: Processes become an end in themselves and the people overseeing them own the process, causing a failure to focus on the outcomes and how those outcomes tie to the outcomes of other processes.
  • Disconnect between analysts and their leaders: Constantly changing leadership in a stagnant organizational structure creates a disconnect between process owners and analysts as well as their leaders.
  • Disconnect between analysts and outcomes: As a result, processes and analysts are often disconnected from decision makers focused on the mission of the organization.

 Pulling the thread: Impact on org decision-making

So far, we have outlined why complex government organizations tend to create disjointed processes and disconnects up and down the hierarchy. What impact does that have on the actual decisions being made? These decisions – like where to allocate limited budget resources and what initiatives to prioritize – determine the outcomes that we all greatly care about as tax-paying citizens and those who work in this industry. 

Disconnected Strategy: From top to bottom and side to side – from the highest-level leader down to the entry-level analyst – it is critical that organizations have a unified purpose and strategy. And yet, while its mission often shows up on the website and is even preached from above, it is painfully difficult for many individual contributors to see how their contributions daily impact that mission. Thus, the data that leaders need to consume for better decision-making are seldom prepared considering the overall strategy and with the outcomes in mind.

In addition, with a slow-changing or unchanging organization and a rapidly changing leadership, government employees sometimes choose to “wait out” an ambitious political appointee or other temporary leader, causing potentially transformational efforts to slow down or become dismissed altogether. The story of the government employee who makes their entire career out of saying no to new initiatives, and providing compelling reasons why the initiatives would not work is not as apocryphal as we would like. These individuals stifle innovation and eliminate any high-risk/high-reward opportunities.

Personality Driven Decision-making – This dynamic where leaders often change also fosters personality-driven decision-making. New leaders enter the scene without the context behind certain data elements, past decisions, or processes. As a result, they may be inclined to dismiss some of the past work and make emotional decisions, based primarily on their personality and how they themselves operate. A corollary to personality-driven decision-making is the ‘loudest voice’ complex, where collaborative decisions (by committee or council) may be over-influenced by those who have the loudest personality or are most persuasive, rather than more objective criteria. When any of these – data, process, and people – are not given their due credit, decision-making suffers.

Fixing the Problem

While we need to be realistic about our capacity to change the organizational complexity, there are some things within our control to improve planning and decision-making.

First, we can foster collaboration, communicating more frequently and effectively across different units and processes. Collaboration breaks down silos and empowers a broader array of stakeholders to weigh in on decisions that need to be made.

Second, no matter where we sit in the hierarchy, we can take an outcome-based approach to everything we do. We begin with the end in mind. This is quite simple. As you consider the various processes you oversee or participate in, focus on their purpose. What is the desired outcome? What decisions ultimately need to be made at the end of such processes? And how can you bring together the most relevant data and stakeholders to inform such decisions? By asking and answering these questions, the decisions and outcomes become clearer. Less relevant aspects of the process start to fall away. Often, within the constraints of all the complexity, we see some simple adjustments that can be made, and they have a significant effect.  

Finally, we can also leverage technology that will help to alleviate the challenges we have discussed: cut across siloes, collect, and manage data, prioritize, and run scenarios based on the outcomes we desire. This technology creates greater accessibility and altogether enables data-informed decision-making.

Fortunately, technology can enhance our ability to become more organized, more efficient, and more effective in our planning and decision-making processes. And it can help entire organizations come together on the same sheet of music, to pursue the outcomes we desire.

Read the 5 Obstacles to Better Public-Sector Decision-Making Series

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