3 – Local government and complexity. Is there a simple explanation?

The last post talked about why services are offered by local government and some ideas relevant to determining what should be offered. That whole post may have seemed like an over simplification. After all, if it was that simple, each local government would have a list of the services they offer and it would be straightforward to communicate to the community which services will or won’t be offered. In practice, it is not that easy to be definite about the services available because almost any service request will be considered and councils are reluctant to say no.

This post is an effort to explain why that is so by discussing the complexity that exists in public services. For some of the ideas I acknowledge posts on the blog site ‘Flip Chart Fairy Tales’.

To begin with, services are complicated by the involvement of end users (customers) in the delivery process. Customers are not consuming something that has been made earlier. They play a voluntary and virtually uncontrollable role in producing a service. And, every customer has different needs and preferences. Therefore, processes for service delivery are not as predictable and controllable as they are in activities such as manufacturing. Despite this, many of the theories and methods for productivity improvement used in local government come from manufacturing. For example, lean.

Next, because of the nature of services, it is easier to measure cost than quality and it is more difficult to make productivity improvements than in manufacturing. Service quality is subjective and depends on the perceptions of the customer. As a result, it can be difficult to tell whether a reduction in cost has led to a reduction in quality. The cost-cutting programs so common in local government often wreak havoc on service quality but it goes unnoticed or unmeasured. In comparison, in the private sector, service businesses have a fail-safe measure of performance – their customers will leave if the quality drops. In public services that are free at the point of consumption and where there is little or no choice of provider, this measure is not available.

Public sector organisations also have to deliver services to whoever comes through the door. Price is not a ‘gatekeeper’ for access to services. And, the people receiving services can come from all parts of society and may have limited education and language skills, making their impact on the service delivery process more significant. Customers introduce variability that complicates service delivery.

Frances Frei describes five types of variability introduced by customers:

  1. They want a service when it suits them.
  2. They can ask for a range of services.
  3. They vary in their ability to do what they need to do in order to receive a service.
  4. They will expend varying degrees of effort to get a service.
  5. They have different opinions about what it means to be treated well.

This adds complexity and unpredictability to delivering services and public service organisations often respond by trying to standardise processes to reduce costs and improve productivity. In practice, this often means ‘designing out’ the source of complexity, i.e. the customer. In public services, the process of standardising service delivery can lead to ‘failure demand’ and increased costs.

John Seddon describes failure demand as ‘demand caused by a failure to do something or do something right for a customer’. It is a particular problem for public services. Because services are free at the point of consumption, if needs are not met people are easily able to re-present or escalate their request, which creates extra demand and increases costs. For example, Seddon estimated that more than 80% of the demand in a health and social care system in the UK was failure demand and that it took 400 hours of work to create 100 hours of value. This may be an extreme example, but it highlights the potential.

The workings of public services are further complicated by the environment in which they operate. It is harder to nail down strategic goals and specific measures for public sector organisations. Local governments often have difficulty defining and measuring what they actually exist to do. That is why their mission statements can seem so nebulous and public value can be so hard to define. Then there are the numerous obstacles to change, including complexity, political resistance, cultural resistance, size and scope, and lack of experience managing change. Improving productivity is difficult and transformational change processes are common.

Restructures seem to follow every change of CEO. Functions are re-assigned and re-named. However, costs are incurred in the processes for delivering services and significant efficiency savings can only be made by improving the way the service delivery processes operate. Geary Rummler and Alan Brache say that an organisation is only as good as its processes and that process improvement presents the greatest improvement opportunity for most organisations. However, improving processes can require a lot of detailed work and knowledge about work flows. Change is more likely to involve ‘incremental adjustment’, which takes more time and effort than the career plans for many executive will allow.

Finally, it is impossible to separate public services from politics. This is perhaps more true in local government where the politicians are highly accountable to their constituents. The competing financial, social and policy objectives can make decision-making much more complex than in the private sector.

Lancing Farell

Flip Chart Fairy Tales. https://flipchartfairytales.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/why-is-the-public-sector-so-complex

Frei, Francis X. 2006. Breaking the Trade-Off between Efficiency and Service. Harvard Business Review, November.

Rummler, Geary A., and Brache, Alan P. 1995. Improving Performance – How to Manage the White Space on the Organisation Chart.

Seddon, John 2014. The Whitehall Effect.