The structure of Michigan county government – Part 1

County Government in Michigan acts differently than other organizations because it is built differently.

Look under your car and tell me something about the framework you see, and I can tell you some things about how the car will perform. The same is true for buildings. Describe the internal framework, and a builder can tell you a lot about how many floors it will support, or how much stuff you can put in it, or how it will weather a hurricane. The same is true for organizations.

Some organizations are designed for simple top-down management; others run on the ingenuity of the staff. Some are simple and straightforward, while others require a lot of attention to communication and cooperation. Everything else in the organization hangs on the structure. The structure defines responsibility and authority, the basics of where revenue comes from and who determines how it is spent.

If we want to understand how an organization works and whether it is functioning well, we need to understand a bit about the structure. For counties in Michigan, the structure is unique and it is important that we understand it in order to properly analyze how well it functions.

We are all familiar with the typical corporate management structure. It includes owners, some type of top level manager, sometimes many levels of managers, and finally the folks who build things, sell them or provide a service. Typically, we expect local government structures to look the same, and some do. County government was designed differently, as though it was intended to operate differently. Our first reaction is to think it is designed poorly, that it is built for chaos. In reality, it spreads out the power. Similar to the checks and balances built into our federal government, county structure forces us to communicate to get things done; it slows the process. In today’s fast paced world, that seems backward.

However, especially in legislative endeavors, it slows us down and gives us more opportunities to consider the consequences of our decisions, and hopefully create laws and services with minimal unintended consequences which turn out to be counterproductive. In business, we value quick response to customers. In government services, we also value quick response and quality service, but in the process of making government policy decisions, thorough consideration of all facets of the issues is essential to making good decisions. As we will see, the county structure in Michigan may, in fact, be the best possible blend of a responsive line structure for service provision and a deliberative structure for policymaking.

We will explore various detailed elements of county government in three additional articles over the next few weeks; see part two of this article series now. If you have additional questions about local government, use the Michigan State University ExtensionFind an Expert” link on this page to contact a local government expert in your area.

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