Formal and Informal Organizational Change in Dalton Township

Over the last twelve months I have initiated changes to the formal structure of Dalton Township through which zoning enforcement actions are taken. The formal structural changes in the organization have caused informal changes. Both of these processes must adjust for and inform each other.

Organization is a large term. Let's first look at what one is. "Richard Daft, a leading thinker on organizations, defines an organization as a social entity that has goals and purpose, that has deliberately designed structures to control and monitor the activities of members, and that operates within and is linked to an external environment (Daft, 2013)." (Senior, Barbara, et al., 2020, pp. 4). In a slightly more general sense, "So, organizations can be seen as people interacting in some kind of structured or organized way to achieve some defined purpose or goal." (Senior, Barbara, et al., 2020, pp. 4). In my view organizations are systems that use roles to guide activities and relationships. A system generally being defined as a process that uses inputs to generate outputs.

An organizational system that interacts with the outside world can be viewed as a set of subsystems that can be structured in various ways. Each subsystem can interact with other subsystems of the organization, and potentially directly with the external environment. The inputs that are used can include human, financial, informational, and material resources. These inputs are processed by managerial, strategic, cultural, technological, and structural subsystems. This creates an output as a service or product. (Morgan, 2006, pp. 43, adapted from Kast and Rosenzweig, 1973).

Formal structure in the organization refers to the intentional and planned activities and relationships. Informal structure refers to the unintentional and unplanned activities and relationships. There is a strong dynamic that exists between the two, which is explained well by Peter Thiel (2014), "When assigning responsibilities to employees in a startup, you could start by treating it as a simple optimization problem to efficiently match talents with tasks. But even if you could somehow get this perfectly right, any given solution would quickly break down. Partly that's because startups have to move fast, so individual roles can't remain static for long. But it's also because job assignments aren't just about the relationships between workers and tasks; they're also about relationships between employees." (Thiel, 2014, pp. 123)

Thiel was able to overcome these difficulties in a dynamic organization while building PayPal into a billion dollar company. He explains succinctly how he approached the problem. "The best thing I did as a manager at PayPal was to make every person in the company responsible for doing just one thing. Every employee's one thing was unique, and everyone knew I would evaluate him only on that one thing. I had started doing this just to simplify the task of managing people. But then I noticed a deeper result: defining roles reduced conflict. Most fights inside a company happen when colleagues compete for the same responsibilities. Startups face an especially high risk of this since job roles are fluid at the early stages. Eliminating competition makes it easier for everyone to build the kinds of long-term relationships that transcend mere professionalism. More than that, internal peace is what enables a startup to survive at all. When a startup fails, we often imagine it succumbing to predatory rivals in a competitive ecosystem. But every company is also its own ecosystem, and factional strife makes it vulnerable to outside threats. Internal conflict is like an autoimmune disease: the technical cause of death may be pneumonia, but the real cause remains hidden from plain view." (Thiel, 2014, pp. 123-124)

Thiel specifically gears his observations to that of startup companies. However, I believe it applies to all organizations in dynamic transition, and possibly simply all organizations. During the early years of PayPal when rapid expansion was occurring Thiel was having a hard time even remembering who all of his employees were. This level of dynamism can occur in organizations in other situations as well, when there is an ongoing or temporary high turnover rate. In these situations there can be a loss of stability in ongoing relationships that can take time to finally determine where responsibilities and authorities begin and end. This problem is also present in Dalton Township, and the solution in application is an ongoing endeavor.

Dalton Township is a municipality in the western part of the lower peninsula of the state of Michigan in the United States. It has a 36 square mile area and a population of over 9,000 people. The municipal government is a board of seven members that are elected every four years. I was elected to the head position of supervisor in November of 2020. I had spent the previous two years making note of an injustice that had occurred in the enforcement of a township law called an ordinance. Municipalities are allowed to have and enforce zoning ordinances because of the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act passed in 1943. These are the local laws that limit the size of property, set the size of dwellings, establish setbacks for fences, designate approved and banned uses for property, etc.

When a violation of the zoning ordinance occurs legal action can be taken by the township. The responsibility ultimately rests with the supervisor who is designated as the legal agent by state statute. Because there is not an ordinance in place specifically laying out the necessary steps in the enforcement process, much of it is at the discretion of the supervisor. This lack of due process at the local level is what I made a focal issue.

In searching for possibilities to add checks and balances to the system and implement a more extensive due process, I decided upon getting the Zoning Board of Appeals involved. The ZBA commonly hears appeals from people that have been denied by the zoning adminstrator. There are two types of normal appeals that the ZBA can grant variances for, dimension and use. However, most people don't realize that anything that occurs through the zoning administrator can be appealed to the ZBA, and this includes enforcement actions.

I took this realization and created Resolution 2021-34, which was passed by the Board of Trustees on August 9th, 2021 (Dalton Township Board, 2021). This lays out a process to be followed for enforcement. The general practice followed by most municipalities is still in effect: a complaint is filed, an inspection takes place, if a violation is found to exist a letter is sent, another inspection, another letter, another inspection, another letter, another inspection, and a civil infraction ticket to appear in court for a judgment and fine. I've added some minor but important adjustments, such as explicitly offering mediation in the first letters. The major innovation is the step before the issuing of the ticket. It's at that point that we now do an administrative appeal.

The township administration has within its power the ability to appeal its own decisions. This is however, never done. Why would the administration appeal the decision that it is itself making? Yet, this is the exact step that I included in the due process resolution. This removes the arbitrariness of enforcement decisions and allows for greater oversight.

When the enforcement decision is appealed it goes to the Zoning Board of Appeals. The ZBA holds a hearing at a public meeting to determine if a violation in fact exists, if due process has been followed per the resolution, and if the recommended legal action is going to be taken.

This change in the formal structure means that the ZBA is seeing cases that it has not previously seen. It means that things that used to occur without almost anyone knowing about them, are now discussed in open public meetings. It means that the zoning administrator and zoning enforcer have to prepare information for the ZBA to make determinations. It means that the ZBA is meeting more often to hear these cases.

I gave a speech to the ZBA about the change when it was being implemented. We also held a joint session of the Board of Trustees, the Planning Commission, and the ZBA. One of the things discussed was the enforcement process. Almost everyone felt that it seemed like a fair and just process. Of the five person zoning board I had one member resign over the change, stating that we should follow the policies of a nearby city. This appears to be the only major disagreement at this time.

These formal changes are easier to observe and calculate than the harder to perceive informal changes. There are of course disagreements between what people think should be the laws, and what the laws are. There are disagreements in the interpretation of the laws as they are written. One major thing that has been noticed is that because the ZBA hasn't been involved in the enforcement process prior to the public hearing, when people come before the board they want to allow them another chance. The formal process calls for mediation to occur earlier if it is going to occur. This tension of passing judgment upon another citizen is such a strong part of the informal structure of the organization in contact with the external social environment that the formal structure will probably require a change to adjust for it.

Thus, the current situation in Dalton Township is an excellent example of what the definition of an organization is, how formal and informal changes effect each other, and the importance of reducing internal strife through clarification of roles and expectations. This can also take us in to an interesting examination on the desirability of delayering in the public sector.

There are two main reasons for removing layers of personnel or processes in organizations. One is to reduce cost. The other is that "...removing layers should accelerate decision making." (Senior, Barbara, et al., 2020, pp. 86). Both of these apply in the public sector.

For instance, two of the strongest statements against the changes in the Dalton Township enforcement process have come about because of each of these objections to the addition of a layer. The Zoning Board of Appeals is paid per meeting. Meeting more means more pay. Also, there is additional preparation time for the zoning administrator and zoning enforcer. Also, there are notices that have to be published and mailed for the public hearing. All of these seem to be acceptable to people. Because the ZBA is not part of the day to day administration activities they did request to have more certainty that mailings had been sent by utilizing certified mail, which would also eliminate the excuse that a person didn't receive the mailings at a hearing. This expense of going from regular to certified mail was heavily advocated against from the zoning enforcer as a waste as certified mail is not legally necessary.

Another incident addresses the speed of decisions and actions. At one of the public hearings for enforcement, a neighbor to the property in violation of the ordinance came and spoke in favor of action being taken. He also became emotionally angry and yelled about how previously there were no hearings and that was better because people could be punished faster.

Both of these instances argue for a concentration of power in the role of supervisor; to remove checks and balances, to simplify due process, to speed up the enforcement process, and to make things less public. Whether or not such a change is desirable is significantly different between a private enterprise and a public sector organization, because there is an ethical difference.

In a private enterprise reducing costs and speeding up decision making capabilities is almost exclusively upside. There may be a strategic position being held about being transparent, or something to that effect, but barring such a thing, reducing costs and speeding decisions to the extent possible is the better decision. In the public sector however we must more strongly contemplate to what extent we want arbitrary power to be executed behind the scenes.

The most effecient system would be to concentrate power in the hands of the township supervisor. But now we must journey back to one of the key parts of the definition of an organization, goals and objectives. Is the goal of a local municipality to punish people as quickly as possible? Is the goal to take legal action against citizens as secretly as possible? Is the goal for legal action to be cheap for the government and expensive for the citizen? Is the goal for fewer people, even a single individual, to be able to decide who is punished?

If one of the primary goals of a government is to secure individual liberties to the citizens, from other governments, from other citizens, and from the government itself, then what are the necessary processes that need to be put in place to secure those rights? I would venture that due process in enforcement, with notice, public transparency, adequate time to respond, and the check and balance that the review by a board provides, is important in the securing of property rights. This difference in the ethical focus and accountability of public sector organizations versus private sector organizations is significant when deciding whether or not a layer of the organization should be retained, removed, or added. The most ethical structure may not be the most efficient in either time or finances.

As a whole, formal and informal changes within organizations is a complex subject, especially owing to the dynamic quality and cultural contexts of such structures and changes. These challenges can be addressed in a variety of manners, ranging from clarifying roles to adding or removing layers. Which strategy, structure, and change is necessary in a given situation must be assessed and determined within the context with a view to best achieving goals and objectives that contribute value, whether in a private sector startup business or in a local municipality.

Reference List

Daft, R.L. (2013), Organization Theory and Design (11th edn), St. Paul, MN: West Publishing.

Dalton Township Board (2021) Regular Meeting Minutes August 9. Available at (accessed 28 November 2021)

Kast FE & JE Rosenzweig (1973) Contingency Views of Organization and Management by Science and Research Associates. In: G Morgan (2006) Images of Organization. London: Sage.

Morgan G (2006) Images of Organization. London: Sage.

Senior, Barbara, et al. Organizational Change PDF EBook, Pearson Education, Limited, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central,
Created from soas-ebooks on 2021-11-25 17:08:57.

Thiel P (2014) Zero to One. New York: Crown Business.



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