Assessment of Local Agency Assignment
The purpose of this paper is to understand one government agency extremely well. What it does, how it does it, how often, how well, with whom, and why that and not something else. You will develop an analytical profile of the mission, organization, personnel structure, political environment, and budget of a department of the City of Saratoga Springs, Saratoga County, or New York State consistent with what a private consulting agency would produce. The purpose of this assignment is to learn how a typical government department or agency is organized, staffed, and financed to achieve its public mission.
What is the mission, purpose and goals of the agency? What local, state, or federal laws brought it into existence? How long has it been in existence? Is the state/local mission the same or slightly different from the federal mission? How has its mission changed since it inception? Who (organizationally) determines what the agencies goals are and what political actors or interest groups are consulted?
1. How is the agency organized? An organizational chart of your agency and where it fits in the larger bureaucracy (i.e. is it a local unit of a state or federal agency) is key here. How centralized or decentralized is the agency?
2. What is the relationship of the central agency to its local branches? How are the local agencies supervised by the central agency (this can be state or national or both)? How is control exercised; that is, how does the central agency measure the local agency’s performance? How much discretion of leeway does the local agency have to pursue its own goals?
3. How do managers exercise control over line personnel? How much discretion do line personnel have?
4. Is there an organizational culture?
1. How many people are in the agency? What do its line personnel do (line personnel are different from support personnel like secretaries, budget people etc)? What are their credentials, background, and average tenure with the agency? How does the agency hire its line personnel? How many positions are there in the agency? What are the standards for promotion and evaluation?
2. Is the workforce unionized? If so, how many and who represents them? What role does the union play in the personnel process?
3. Has the agency revised its personnel policies to make them more market or performance oriented? Why or why not?
1. How is the agency funded? Where does the money come from (federal, state, local, private)? What does it spend its money on? How has it changed in recent years? Who determines where the money is spent? How much flexibility does it have with its spending?
1. Few agencies rely solely on the public sector alone to achieve their goals. What private actors or non-profits does the agency rely on or work with to achieve its mission and why? Are there difficulties in making these public private partnerships work?
1. How does the agency evaluate itself? How successful is the agency? How do they measure success? Are these measures problematic, useful? Are they more or less successful now than in recent years? Why?
1. How much political support is there for the agency among elected officials in Washington, Albany, or elsewhere? How does the agency attempt to build political support for its activities? What interest groups does it rely on to support its initiatives?
2. What other federal, state, or local government agencies does it work with? How are its relations with those agencies?
Research Techniques: How To Do Elite Interviews
Your research will consist almost entirely of elite interviews with agency personnel. This may seem scary, but it is really quite fun once you start doing it. Most government personnel are extremely willing to talk about their agency and what it does.
The first step is to find out as much as possible about the agency beforehand either from news articles or the internet. Agencies also often have annual reports or have legislative audits done on their performance. You should call and ask for this information in advance. This background research provides essential information about what they do. The quality of your interview and data is a function of how much you know in advance.
Identifying Your Sources
The second step is to determine who to call. Many agencies have a public relations department who can help you figure out who you want to talk to. Also, reviewing newspaper articles and internal reports are useful for figuring out how the agency actually operates. You will want to speak to:
a. Managers of the program such as the head of the agency, its main policy, budget, evaluation, and outreach personnel
b. Operators—at least 2 line personnel who are responsible for actually implementing the policies
c. Political overseers- at least 1 preferably 2, with elected officials or staff responsible for overseeing the agency’s operations
d. Customers-- at least two interviews with clients or customers of the agency
e. You may also ask about private or non profit actors who the agency works with
Setting up the Interview
Most government employees are eager to speak about their work, but are also busy and should be contacted as soon as possible to set up interviews. You should identify yourself as a Skidmore student and describe the course and project.
Conducting the Interview
You will have a limited amount of time with most of the people you interview. An hour or hour and a half is not unusual. While this may seem like a lot of time, in reality it isn’t. You should write up the questions you wish to ask in advance and prioritize them. You can also ask if you can call them at a later time if you have any questions. To tape or not to tape. An eternal question. Dress professionally. Be punctual. Write thank you letters. Promise to show them your final paper (or even a draft paper).