4 Organizational Structures in Public Administration

In government and public agencies, the organizational structure establishes the responsibilities, power and control assigned to each member of an organization. It also dictates relationships between employees who provide direct services, management and directors, which sets the tone for how work is conducted and goals are achieved. A generally strict assignment of roles is important for those working in the public sector so that individuals can accomplish short- and long-term projects and aid their organizations in overcoming complex obstacles, enabling each to better serve the public.

4 Organizational Structures in Public Administration

Vertical Structure

The most prevalent organizational structure used by government agencies is the vertical structure. Similar to a hierarchical structure, it is characterized by having several directors at the top who are responsible for making decisions that define policies, public programs and operational procedures; these top level directors report to elected or appointed political leadership. The next level down is made up of middle managers who establish plans for accomplishing goals set out by top level administrators. The subsequent level of positions are the greatest in number and work to carry out assigned tasks. An example of this structure can be found in government agencies such as the military, where the chain of command is clearly defined and individuals within the structure focus on their specific roles and responsibilities allowing them to perform duties efficiently and proficiently in accordance with established rules and standards. The executive branch of the California State Government is another example of vertical structure, as each department reports to a higher level agency with Governor Jerry Brown at the head of command.

Horizontal Structure

A horizontal structure embodies few people at the top with the majority of positions being of equal standing. Most of the individuals within this structure are peers working with one another as opposed to answering to someone higher up on the hierarchical ladder and supervising someone lower on the ladder. While this structure is most common in organizations such as law firms and medical practices where professionals have equal standing, there are instances when it applies to government agencies as well. For example, departments in smaller jurisdictions working with limited budgets and staff may utilize this structure, as it makes communication easier and allows efficient work together, building upon each other’s strengths and shared responsibilities and tasks. In addition, employees in smaller public organizations enjoy more direct decision making authority and greater autonomy to demonstrate their skills as public service employees. The California Partnership to End Domestic Violence represents an example of horizontal structure, as the board and staff members are made up of specialists working together to intervene and prevent domestic violence while helping victims and their families.

Matrix Structure

The matrix organizational structure utilizes at minimum a dual chain of command, in which an employee answers to two or more managers from separate departments. Most commonly in government, an employee from a different functional discipline is assigned to a project while retaining their original position within the civic service organization. Matrix teams are created within government agencies and similar organizations to tackle complex problems because they bring together specialized employees who offer expertise and experience from other departments or agencies to address specific issues. The goal is to bring the right people and resources together to collaborate with each other and solve problems more intelligently and efficiently. These structures also establish relationships between agencies and foster better communication, visibility and organizational oversight.

Another benefit of the matrix structure is that it empowers and motivates employees to be proactive and creates new leadership roles, opportunities to expand and develop skills and capabilities outside of their initially hired position description. Challenges associated with this type of organizational structure include increased complexity and reporting to multiple supervisors. This requires clear and consistent communication and cooperation between managers and employees so that responsibilities, work priorities and performance standards are acknowledged. An example of this can be found in the Energy-Related Environmental Research Area within the California Energy Commission. Research conducted in the four main areas of air quality, global climate change, aquatic resources and terrestrial resources work towards the central goal of evaluating the effects of energy production and use on the environment.

Divisional Structure

Functions and responsibilities are separated based on job specialty, service or geography in the divisional structure. Each division is fully autonomous with the resources and capabilities for handling their operations with very little input or assistance needed from other departments or agencies. Divisional structures that are separated according to regions can be seen in the court system and government agencies like police departments. These are divided and assigned to specific jurisdictions according to where they are and function on their own while running parallel to other departments. Divisional structures work in conjunction with other organizational structures. The Department of Homeland Security provides a significant example of divisional structure. Formed eleven days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the office first focused on developing a strategy to protect the nation against terrorism and any future attacks. In November 2002, the Homeland Security Act passed establishing it as a Cabinet-level department which led to a need for multiple divisions to handle different specific areas of threat and security, such as border security, critical infrastructure security, immigration enforcement, human trafficking and other areas.

Organizational structures represent more than the way an agency is set up. These structures establish rules and responsibilities for the most efficient routes for attaining organizational objectives. While variations of these structures are used in different areas of the public sector, administrators need to be familiar with the various ways organizations are structured, and how specific organizations have changed over time, so that they can be most effective within their own organization.

Learn More

If you seek to change the world on a local, national, or global level, the University of San Francisco is a great place to build on your existing education, experience, and skills. By learning more about the University of San Francisco Online Master of Public Administration (MPA), you take an important first step toward pursuing your professional goals and demonstrating your commitment to social justice. Our program is designed for professionals who want to become effective managers and civic leaders who affect change through policy management and advocacy.

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