Span of Control Impacts Public Works Efficiency

Span of Control

Span of control is a management tool which seeks to define the number of people a manager can supervise effectively. A narrow span of control is similar to traditional organizational structures and is often bureaucratic and comprised of many levels of management. Within a narrow span of control, managers have fewer employees under their supervision and work is often specialized. A wide span of control implies that a single manager has a greater amount of employees under their supervision. More recently, the availability of information technology has supported wider spans of control. As a result, organizations have been able to rely on this technology to aid fewer middle managers to be responsible for larger numbers of subordinates. This effort adds value with its’ demand for cost savings and streamlined operations.

Factors Which Affect Span of Control

Span of control is affected by many factors which include:

- Geographical dispersion of assets, work yards, and employees. A wider dispersion of these factors may create more difficulty for a supervising manager.

- Capability of employees. Highly capable workers require less supervision and allow managers to oversee more employees.

- Value-add for the agency. An agency seeking to add value to its workforce through training and developing of new skills requires management resources to be focused on performance management.

- Similarity of tasks. The interval and similarity at which tasks are performed dictate the amount of uncertainty and direct supervision required in day to day operations. Frequently occurring tasks similar in nature often result in less variables and easier management.

- Volume of tasks and responsibilities. For a manager, responsibility for additional efforts such as stakeholder meetings, committee memberships, and additional projects can decrease a manager’s desired span.


The rule of thumb has been 4 subordinates to every manager (4:1), yet many agencies operate with increased span of control ratios. The current ratio within public works falls between 5:1 and 8:1 for most groupings and some agencies exceed 20:1.

Determining the optimal span of control in an organization is a significant improvement procedure which can affect a number of processes including communication, task oversight, and planning. There is no established answer when determining the appropriate ratio for an agency as each organization operates with their own variables. Finally, below are some general concepts which can be of use to public works agencies in this process:

- Governments are openly attempting to increase span of control ratios.

- Current practices and research are indicating higher ranges for span of control >10 that appear to be growing with technology and communications.

- Any span of less than three should be justified and 1:1 span should require an even higher level of justification.

- Levels of employees to supervisors have found to be effective with higher ratios of staff to management for structured and preplanned activities such as independent technology staff with lower ratios in specialized employees requiring feedback and control.

- If the business processes and system are effective, the span of control ratio of staff to management can be higher. If an agency is unstructured, lacks skill sets, and need direction, a narrower span of control is necessary.

- Command and control type of leaders require more layers, while management with new technology-driven tools use less layers.

To learn more about Span of Control and its impact on Public Works organizations read the full article written by Joyce Lorick here.