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Smithsonian Perspectives

As the Institution grows in size and complexity, we are proceeding to decentralize and revitalize its parts

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The Regents recently adopted guidelines enlarging the role of commissions and boards associated with many of the Smithsonian Institution's museums and directed the other museums and research institutes to establish such boards. I write about this seemingly dry subject because the action is an important part of restructuring the governance of the Institution.

While the Smithsonian was created by Congress and receives a good portion of its support from federal appropriations, it is not an executive agency. Rather the legal responsibility for its governance is in a Board of Regents and the Secretary the Board appoints, who serves at the pleasure of the Board. The structure resembles that of a state university. Congress is very influential largely through the money it appropriates. On the other hand, the Institution historically has enjoyed considerable autonomy from detailed directions of Congress or the executive branch.

When the Institution was smaller, its various parts could be directed in some detail by the Secretary and his staff. In 1958-59, for instance (when I was last in Washington), the Smithsonian consisted mainly of the Arts and Industries Building, the Castle, the Freer, the Natural History Museum, and the National Zoo. There were other units, such as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the National Collection of Fine Arts (which later became the National Museum of American Art), but they were much smaller than at present.

In the ensuing years, the Smithsonian grew mightily, adding the National Museum of American History, the National Design Museum (the Cooper-Hewitt), the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of African Art, as well as the National Portrait Gallery, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the Conservation & Research Center of the Zoo, the National Postal Museum, the Renwick Gallery of Art, the Anacostia Museum and the newly created National Museum of the American Indian. Moreover, the major research institutes in tropical biology and astrophysics and astronomy grew substantially.

Extraordinary expansion leads to the need to change structures of governance. On paper, the Smithsonian's structure looks much as it did in times past. In reality, however, much has changed. The Secretary no longer manages detail. I find myself representing the Institution to the external world (including Congress), working with the Regents and the Smithsonian National Board, reviewing, and sometimes formulating, general policies to guide the museums and institutes (for instance, the newly distributed "exhibition guidelines"), continually learning about what we do and actually have done, participating in budget allocations to the units seeking to assure high quality throughout the Institution, and, most important, choosing the directors of the museums and institutes. My two principal associates — the Under Secretary and the Provost — are more hands-on, but we all are trying to assure greater operational discretion, consistent with policy guidelines, in the directors of the museums and the institutes.

Evolution toward decentralization is not easy. A single Board of Regents is ultimately responsible for the Institution, and wants assurance that the Institution's parts are functioning effectively and properly. The outside world looks at the Institution as a single entity and views the Secretary as the responsible officer. Sometimes this requires Secretarial action — as with the Enola Gay exhibit — that is extraordinary and is viewed by some as improper intervention. Moreover, a number of operations continue to be run by the central administration, from business activities to educational programs for elementary and secondary schools, which overlap with similar activities within museums and institutes. Finally, the fiduciary obligations of the Regents and the Secretary require oversight to assure that money is being spent legally, and that federal rules are being followed (for example, in procurement and personnel practices). We are striving for systems that audit actions of museums and institutes rather than manage the processes themselves, but the transitions are difficult.

The benefits of judicious decentralization are numerous. Among others, vitality is stimulated, innovation finds fewer obstacles, planning is more realistic, decisions can be made and implemented more rapidly, and the ability to make trade-offs in the use of funds can be enhanced. These are all very important in a heterogeneous institution like the Smithsonian.

The enlargement of the roles for museum and institute boards is part of the process. As the museums and institutes become more autonomous, boards will provide directors with advice on many subjects. In the case of museums, especially, they will provide the advice of experts in a variety of areas, such as management and strategic planning, and will be a useful vehicle in bringing public perspectives directly to the attention of directors and staff. Boards will normally champion their museums in requests for support and can be counted on to help raise the private support that is crucial to the sustenance of excellence at the Smithsonian.

Reorganizations in complex institutions take time to work themselves out and bear fruit. The process is well started at the Smithsonian, and present leadership will continue to work hard toward its accomplishment.

By I. Michael Heyman

 

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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