2 – Why do we provide the services that we do in local government?

For some practitioners this is a question that is unasked and, therefore, unanswered. For me, the answer is critical in developing my practice and managing for high performance. This is my attempt to provide an answer applicable to any local government.

To begin with, we have legislative guidance. Former local government CEO Catherine Dale, in her thesis for her Doctor of Philosophy, says the functions of a Victorian local government include advocating; planning for and providing services and facilities; providing and maintaining community infrastructure; undertaking strategic land use planning; raising revenue; and making and enforcing local laws. These functions are mostly very broad and open for each municipality to implement according to their community’s needs and preferences. It is a starting point for understanding why services are provided.

Specifically in relation to public services, Mark Moore argues that governments provide public services to create public value. He defines public value as the collective view of the public or community about what they regard as valuable, especially with regard to the use of public money and authority. He says that public managers (i.e. elected representatives and bureaucrats) need to try and understand what constitutes public value for their community so that they can set out to deliver it through their operations and be held accountable for their performance. Moore sets out four key requirements of public managers in creating public value. They must:

  1. Articulate a clear, complete and compelling idea of the public value to be produced.
  2. Develop a set of measures to record performance in producing that value.
  3. Invite and embrace external accountability for defining and creating value.
  4. Create management systems that distribute internal accountability for value creation across managers and employees so that they feel motivated to perform in the short-term and to innovate and learn over the long-term.

A process is required to determine what constitutes public value for each community that includes ways to check in periodically to stay in touch and be responsive to changes in needs and expectations. This could be one of the key objectives of community engagement programs. Too often, community engagement seems to occur so that the council is seen to be doing it, or to consult over a single project or plan. A serious focus on public value would help determine the operational capability required to deliver valued services and to design those services to meet expectations.

In contrast to Moore, John Seddon is less directly focussed on the concept of public value or value in general, and says that ‘purpose’ should be the main focus of services. He argues that it is in the interests of all taxpayers when services are delivered in the most efficient way to meet needs.  Accordingly, Seddon says that understanding the customer or citizen purpose in interacting with the organisation is the key to ensuring that services meet customer needs and expectations. In this model, the services offered and the way they are delivered would be determined by the service consumer and their private value expectation. Seddon places significant emphasis on the worker delivering services and their role in responding to customer–introduced variability and tailoring service delivery.

I think local government is expected to deliver whatever services are required for the community to be safe, healthy and fulfil its potential. This is expressed in many different ways. One council says that its mission or purpose is simply to make the municipality ‘a better place’. Obviously there is an inherent community expectation of value. People are paying taxes and giving authority to the council. They want something in return. As Moore explains, understanding what they want and how it constitutes public value is essential to high performance and success. It should determine the policy settings for services. At the point of a customer receiving a service, understanding their purpose in seeking the service becomes paramount if they are to be satisfied. As Seddon points out very effectively, failure to fulfil purpose leads to ‘failure demand’ and inefficiency.

In a nutshell, the services offered by each local government need to fit within legislated requirements, be responsive to the broader community needs and expectations, and meet the individual purpose for each person receiving a service.

Lancing Farrell

Dale, Catherine 2008. The Role of Local Government for a Contemporary Victorian Community.

Moore, Mark 2013. Recognising Public Value.

Seddon, John 2008. Systems Thinking in the Public Sector.