231 – A New City O/S – Stephen Goldsmith and Neil Kleiman.

875 words (4 minutes reading time)                                                               by Lancing Farrell

distributed network

I have also been reading Goldsmith and Klein’s bookA New City O/S. It is a very interesting treatise on a potential future model for local government, particularly the argument for distributed governance. As Colin Weatherby has described, it is a researched and expert work.

I found the concept of distributed governance quite interesting. In some ways, all councils already operate using a version of this model for some services. Typically, this would be in community services where the council, State and not-for-profit organisations often combine to provide a facility, grant funding, and the actual delivery of the service. I think it would be a big challenge for many councils to adopt distributed governance across all services because of the loss of control.

The many sources of accountability for councils tends to make them risk averse and control focused. This is also a key argument for change made by Goldsmith and Kleiman.

“… the very rules designed to frustrate graft and waste now also frustrate employees who are ‘continuously monitored and investigated by auditors, judges, budget examiners, performance evaluators, legislative committees, public watchdog groups, clientele associations, citizen bodies and media organisations eager for a good scandal’.”

The limitations on delivering services that meet the needs and expectations of citizens are self-imposed by the sector and its regulators. The sources of local government accountability has been the topic of a previous post. In Australia, as in the US, it is a constraint on innovation and improvement.

It is worth re-capping on what Goldsmith and Kleiman describe as distributed governance. It is hard to find one succinct definition of what it is, and there are many partial descriptions where there is discussion of why it is needed and how it works. I have assembled several of those descriptions in my attempt at a definition.

Distributed governance places the city at the hub of civic work, with ‘real communications, coordination and connections’ across a broad range of third parties, including residents, contractors, community organisations, local institutions and non-profit and for-profit organisations. It leaves behind strict rules and tight control of information. It is customer-focused and has speed and flexibility to find partners to provide services with autonomy. At the centre, the city provides standards and guides overall system operations with clear directives. It is less involved in delivering services, and more involved in ‘setting roles and rules for conduct, quality, equity and privacy’.

It is clearly intended to be a distributed system. In brief there are three main types of systems or networks identified by Paul Baran, a pioneer in communication networks and the development of the internet.

Baran networks

Most councils use a centralised model in both how they work as an organisation and in the way they deliver services to their community. There might be a decentralised model for some services, typically internal business partners or partnerships for community services. The flexibility and responsiveness potentially available from a network is certainly attractive when considered in comparison with the rigid bureaucracy common to most councils. However, does it adequately consider the political nature of governance in councils?

For it to succeed in local government, a distributed model would need a clear and common purpose. What direction is it going in and who is steering? Without this clarity it could easily fragment into a set of networks, much like the functional silos that exist in many councils. It would also need information symmetry. This is a key point made by Goldsmith and Kleiman, and why they have focused so heavily on the need for a new O/S to enable distributed governance. The open and free flow of information between all parties is the way common purpose is created and fulfilled. But would this be enough?

Working in a distributed network, in some ways akin to network alliances more common in business (although I am sure Goldsmith and Kleiman would say not), is a departure from the way most councils have traditionally operated. Councils rely on contracts and other formal agreements with other entities when working together. It gives certainty and control. Politicians are often uncomfortable leading organisations responsible for ensuring that a community receives services if those services are being left to others to deliver as and how they can. It comes back to the accountability question – who is responsible for the services delivered using distributed governance?

My final comment in relation to A New City O/S is in relation to measurement. Goldsmith and Kleiman emphasise the importance of measures (and using technology to make and report on measurements) in ensuring that the O/S for distributed governance works. The need to ‘migrate from the measurement of activities to the measurement of outcomes’ is mentioned repeatedly. As is the importance of measuring problems solved, rather than compliance with rules. This I strongly agree with.

Measures give control. If they are effective measures of fulfilment of purpose as described by John Seddon, or, in the case of Goldsmith and Kleiman, the outcomes or problems solved, and they are used by staff delivering the service to understand performance and make corrections as required, they can immediately improve services.

Maybe, of all the ideas in A New City O/S, changing the way we measure is the most relevant and doable.

230 – A way to show performance is determined by the system.

600 words (3 minutes reading time)                                                         Colin Weatherby

95 - 5 Vanguard

Source: Vanguard video ‘Tactics for helping people learn about the 95:5 principle, Part 1′

There have been several posts about performance appraisal and the ineffectiveness of systems designed to improve the performance of individuals. This posts picks up on the key theme of those posts – i.e. a person is not totally responsible for their performance in a system of work and managers need skills in understanding and improving the system.

This has been a compelling idea in my thinking and my work. Despite the many criticisms and problems encountered with people and their work in local government, I have met very few people who come to work to do a bad job. Many years of watching people work and talking to them about their work had led me to conclude that it was the way they were asked to do the work and the tools they were given that created most of the problems. I just didn’t know how to describe it.

Then I read Peter Scholtes’ book ‘The Leaders Handbook: making things happen, getting things done’, and his quote from Edwards W. Deming struck a chord with me:

“The fact is that the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance.”

This book reinforced that I was on the right track. It wasn’t until I recently subscribed to Vanguard and accessed some of the materials available for 10 weeks to new subscribers that I found a simple way to illustrate that performance is mostly determined by the system of work. As I am writing this, it still seems odd to me that there is a need to prove something that is so self-evident.

In two short videos the Vanguard team describe a simple and effective way to show people how a system affects performance. They use the example of a washing machine repairer (an engineer) being called to fix a washing machine at a home.

They start by asking what the purpose is in the home owner calling the repairer. In this case, ‘fix the washing machine’.

Then they describe the system – ‘home owner calls repair company, talks to call centre staff and describes the problem, the call centre then makes an appointment for the repairer to visit, they order replacement parts based on the problem described to them, the parts are sent to the repairer, the repairer comes to the home’. It could be different process but this covers a simple system.

However, the repairer isn’t able to make the repair as scheduled. You are asked to write down the reasons that might happen. I have taken the liberty of taking a screen shot from the video (the image above) where some of those reasons are listed. In this image, they have gone a step further and coded each reason with the cause – the circled ‘s’ is a system reason. There will be a circled ‘e’ for engineer reasons, and there will be some reasons that are shared between the system and the engineer.

The numbers of reasons attributable fully or partially to the system prove Deming’s point. Most reasons will be to do with the system. I am keen to try it for other situations relevant to my work.

The most interesting part of the video comes at the end when the narrator says that if you are the manager responsible for the repairer, and you think you need to act on the people, you will sit down at this point with the repairer and talk to them about their performance. Perhaps a new objective about trying harder will end up in their performance plan. I can imagine that discussion – I have been part of them.

Alternatively, if the manager thinks they need to act on the system they will start to spend time in the work to look for the barriers to the repairer achieving the purpose. And they will help them to overcome those barriers.

229 – Coronavirus and local government – time for a new O/S?

800 words (4 minutes reading time)                                                           by Colin Weatherby

A new city operating system cover Goldsmith

This is the first in a series of posts requested to discuss the Coronavirus and local government services.

I recently read ‘A New City O/S – The Power of Open, Collaborative and Distributed Governance‘ by Stephen Goldsmith and Neil Kleiman. Some time ago I read ‘A Responsive City‘ by Stephen Goldsmith and this latest book takes Goldsmith’s thinking about cities and their governance to a new level. As a former Mayor (Indianapolis), deputy Mayor (New York) and the current Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Stephen Goldsmith is well credentialled to discuss local government.

It is timely to read Goldsmith and Kleiman’s book as local government services adapt to the Coronavirus, react to ensure the safety of staff and the community, seek to understand emerging service demands, and start to look ahead at recovery and the best way to deliver services post-Coronavirus. Continue reading

228 – Frog or bike. Does it matter?

1720 words (6 minutes reading time)                                                                Lancing Farrell

thinking frog

Colin Weatherby and Tim Whistler have made some interesting points in their contributions to the discussion about the Vanguard Method. Clearly, Colin’s colleague has had some success in using it and has been able to identify unique features of the Vanguard Method. In contrast, Tim has raised some legitimate concerns, especially from a local government perspective. I have spent some time thinking about both points of view and reading some of the material mentioned. Here are my thoughts for what they are worth.

Services are complicated and the interactions between the parts, especially when people are involved, is important. Experience says that changing one part of a system does often have unintended consequences elsewhere. Continue reading

227 – Frogs or bikes – I’d love to see that.

600 words (3 minutes reading time)                                                                   Tim Whistler

frog on road

I read Colin Weatherby’s post on the Vanguard Method and systems thinking with some interest. There have been a number of posts on systems thinking on this blog. It is not a new idea. I am intrigued by what makes the Vanguard Method any different to other applications of systems thinking. I am also interested in how it relates to concepts like public value. How does the Vanguard Method achieve better or different results?

As previously posted, I have some interest in the Vanguard Method. I suppose, I am sceptical about the likelihood of any method being taken up in local government if it relies on ‘counter-intuitive’ truths and if there is no detailed plan to say what will be achieved and when. It is always hard to justify expenditure of public funds without a written plan with measurable outcomes – even if everyone suspects the plan is ill-founded or optimistic. If you aim for the stars, if you fail you will at least land on the moon. A plan gives you something to measure the effort against and hold people accountable. After all, isn’t public accountability the aim?

Continue reading

226 – Frog or bicycle? The Vanguard Method at work.

2250 words (8 minutes reading time)                                                   Colin Weatherby

frog on bike

Some time ago Tim Whistler wrote a brief post on the Vanguard Method in Australia. Since then I have been talking to a colleague who has been using the Vanguard Method. Their experience has highlighted aspects of the Vanguard Method that are different to other system thinking approaches. The originator of the Vanguard Method, John Seddon, has also written a new book (‘Beyond Command and Control’) that discusses some of the differences between the Vanguard Method and other popular approaches to organisational change. This is rather a long post but worth the effort to read it if you are interested in systems thinking and the Vanguard Method.

Continue reading

225 – Why do we struggle to achieve capital expenditure targets?

By Lancing Farrell                                                                                                      1250 words

the planning fallacy.png

I was reaching into the archives to re-run a popular post on how councils fail to complete their targeted amount of capital works each year when a colleague pointed me in the direction of a recent podcast on Freakonomics Radio. The podcast, Here’s Why All Your Projects Are Always Late — and What to Do About It,  provides insights into the nature of the problem facing councils and provides some practical solutions.

You might want to start by reading that post from the archives.

In the podcast several key reasons for projects not being completed on time and within budget are discussed. Those most relevant to local government include the planning fallacy, optimism bias, overconfidence, and strategic misrepresentation.

Let’s start with the planning fallacy.

There are a lot of reasons why that project you planned can take way longer than you anticipated, and cost way more. Outright fraud, for instance — the lying, cheating, and stealing familiar to just about anyone who’s ever had, say, a home renovation … There’s also downright incompetence; that’s hard to plan for. But today we’re talking about the planning fallacy, which was formally described a few decades ago by the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

This quote sets the scene nicely. Lots of things can contribute to a project not being completed on time but our inability to accurately estimate the time required to complete a project sets it up for failure. Continue reading

224 – Risk taking in local government

By Colin Weatherby                                                                                               900 words



Lancing Farrell raised several important issues in providing advice to a colleague regarding risk management. How does a council balance the pressure not to take risks and fail, with the competing pressure (often from the same sources) to take risks and meet demands to create new value?  

Risk is an interesting concept and there are various definitions. I like to think of it simply as the uncertainties related to achieving your goals. It is about the hazards along the pathway as you make your way towards your destination.

Businesses that don’t take risks will fail. They become uncompetitive or customer satisfaction drops. Either way, they lose business to competitors taking risks to create value that customers want and will pay for. We can all think of the companies that have taken big risks in redefining a service or product to create a new market.

You are probably wondering what this might have to do with local government. Aren’t we just doing what we have always done?

Many councils are. Whether they should be, or whether they will be able to continue to do so, should be questioned. We now live in the ‘age of the customer’ – residents want personalisation, mobility, self-service, rapid response, and efficiency (efficiency for them, not the council). The variability introduced by customers must be quickly and effectively absorbed by the organisation. Complexity, by its very nature, creates risks.

In conjunction with mandated limits on prices (the rate cap) and growing numbers of customers (as Lancing points out, Melbourne is growing rapidly), the rising expectations of residents means that councils must do things differently. Different usually involves risk taking.

I recently attended a training session on developing an organisational risk appetite. It showed me how councils could identify hazards and manage risks differently, yet still satisfy the pressure to stop things going wrong while meeting the demand to create new value. It needs a re-think and a more sophisticated approach to risk and compliance. Continue reading

223 – Risk management in local government

By Lancing Farrell                                                                                                  730 words

risk taking


Is there a delegation for taking risks at your council? Does your council have a risk appetite? Are the strategic risks that have been identified appropriate? Are the operational risks relevant? Does the audit program decrease or increase risk?

These are questions that a colleague raised with me recently when trying to understand the way risks were managed at their council. I suggested they look at their risk management framework – how is risk assessed in terms of likelihood and consequence. This should explain the inherent risk, current risk rating, the target risk and rate the effectiveness of controls. It can make interesting reading.

Next, I suggested they look for their organisations lists of key risks – strategic and operational. These are usually in the risk register. This isn’t always easy to find. Someone in the risk department will have it. Most councils will have up to 8-12 strategic risks. There will be many more operational risks.

Councils are very risk aware. Some people describe it as risk aversion. I think this is driven by the multiple accountabilities that councils live with – the Minister for Local Government, the Ombudsman, the courts, the media and the community. Sometimes it is hard to know who is going to take issue with what you have done. Continue reading

222 – Execution – the discipline of getting things done. Read it.

By Colin Weatherby                                                                               1200 words


Occasionally someone tells you about a management book that provides insight and leads to a new understanding of what you do every day. Or what you don’t do. This is one of those books and every leader in local government should read it.

Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan have combined their knowledge of practice and theory to provide advice on linking the three core processes that they believe are at the heart of every organisation – people, strategy and operations – to get things done.

Failure to execute is a common criticism of local government. People often say that councils are overly bureaucratic, full of red tape, unable to make decisions or constantly changing them under pressure. I read the book not knowing what to expect. It is a book that really shouldn’t be necessary. After all, organisations only exist to do something and doesn’t doing something require execution?

It doesn’t take long before you realise the book is not just about doing something, it is about doing what is needed to meet your commitments and achieve the results you have promised. It is about helping leaders make commitments outside their organisation that can be delivered and ensuring that commitment obtained inside their organisation is followed through to execution. Continue reading