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Action vs Control

People wonder: Why does it take government so long to get things done?


Well, part of the reason is that government has so many objectives. We want government to act quickly to meet the needs of the public, but we also want government to:

  • control expenditures

  • select employees and contractors fairly

  • avoid conflicts of interest

  • give communities an opportunity to review projects and have any negative impacts mitigated

  • pay attention to environmental sustainability

  • advance equity to disadvantaged communities

  • provide a safe work environment

  • avoid legal risk

  • cooperate with labor representatives on compensation and work rule issues

  • comply with local, state, and federal regulations

On one hand, these are all valid, important objectives. On the other hand, satisfying all these objectives can diffuse the focus of an organization, thereby delaying important Customer Experience (CX) improvements for riders. It might take two years, for example, to get a transit ambassador program off the ground to allow time to consult with community groups, discuss the program with labor leaders, and ensure that hiring or procurement is done fairly and beyond reproach. Or it might take three years to buy new buses to provide enough time to comply with state and federal procurement regulations and avoid objections by manufacturers who bid on the work. And it might take ten or more years to build a new transit line to provide time to go through an environmental and community review process, labor agreements, and extensive procurement processes.


All of the goals listed above are important, but they DO slow down progress. And of course, more time means more cost to get things done.

woman thinking deeply

So how can a transit agency strike the right balance between getting customer experience improvements done in a timely way, while fulfilling other objectives? A starting point is to map your organization and categorize functions by whether their primary purpose is Action or alternatively Control. Action functions include anything that supports direct services to riders or future improvements. That would include many (but not all) operations employees, customer service employees, those who seek funding for agency services, those who promote ridership, or those who plan or construct projects to meet customer needs, just to name a few.


Control functions are typically things like legal review, insurance, audit, or budget control functions just to name a few. Control can be embedded in other departments as well - e.g. communications employees whose job it is to enforce brand standards, procurement employees who review documents to make sure they are compliant, or hiring staff whose job it is to make sure hiring processes comply with rules. Distinguishing Action vs Control functions is not always easy, and some employees do both, but an easy way to recognize Control functions is to ask if staff have the power to delay improvements if requirements aren't met. If so, those are Control functions rather than Action oriented.


If an organization has too much Action and not enough Control, then it can incur unacceptable levels of risk. And if an organization has too much Control and not enough Action, then it can result in paralysis. Your organizational mapping will allow you to calculate and monitor an Action/Control ratio. Over time, if Action is too slow, think about reducing some Control processes. Conversely, if Control is insufficient, think about increasing Controls. The goal should be to strike the right balance.

the scale of justice

Tip: Consider engaging "Process Mapping" experts to document your current processes, identify controls that are discretionary, and identify opportunities to streamline. Also, have the leadership of your organization consider authorizing a separate, streamlined path for top CX priorities to speed delivery of CX improvements. See also our related blog post: Internal Pain Points.


Another strategy to bridge the Action vs Control tension is to modify the Control culture so that employees in a Control function feel empowered to help colleagues find shortcuts. For example, a procurement specialist might provide a sample Request for Proposal (RFP) document to expedite creating a new one, or they might waive a discretionary step in the process. Organizations can also train Control employees to see the colleagues they help as "customers" and put themselves in their colleagues' shoes. And Control departments can regularly seek feedback from the colleagues they serve to gauge progress towards culture change.


Another option is for transit agencies to seek regulatory relief - waivers or exceptions - to allow projects to proceed more quickly. By all means, pursue this strategy if it is available!


With all of the challenges facing public transit today - ridership declines, community pressure to improve the customer experience, unmet mobility needs of disadvantaged communities, and the pressing need to address climate change - getting more done more quickly is essential. To make that happen, start by mapping Action vs Control in your organization, track it like a KPI, and include actions in your Customer Experience Plans to balance Action vs Control to deliver improvements in a cost-effective and timely way.



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