24 – High performance in local government. Part 2 – How can you make it happen?

In Part 1 I talked about what a high performing local government organisation could look like. In this post I look at how you can improve performance to become high performing. Change management is a buzz phrase in local government at the moment. Everyone in leadership seems to accept that there is a need for change but they can’t agree on how to do it.

Frank Ostroff has some good advice for change agents in the public sector. He says that sustained performance improvement isn’t hampered by failure to identify solutions; indeed, he suggests they are often straightforward. In Part 1 made a list of 24 actions that you could start with to create a high performance local government organisation. Why not just implement them? Part of the answer lies in what Ostroff describes as the four unique obstacles to change in public services.

  1. Leaders are not appointed on the basis of their commitment or experience in reform. Instead, they are appointed for their ‘command of policy, technical expertise or political connections’.
  2. Leaders are appointed for relatively short periods and have limited time to see reforms through to conclusion. Therefore, they tend to focus on quick policy reforms.
  3. Rules covering activities such as procurement, personnel, and budgeting put in place to prevent wrong-doing have made government inflexible. The penalties for failure are also greater than the rewards for exceptional performance.
  4. Everyone has a rightful stake in government activities. Almost any reform is likely to meet with resistance.

I know he is talking about government in the US, and there are some significant differences in Victorian local government. But there are also strong similarities. His four obstacles are just as prevalent, even if it is for some different reasons.

Ostroff provides some insights into the characteristics of successful public service reforms. He describes five principles and illustrates them in some detail with cases. His first principle is to ‘improve performance against mission’. This resonates with the work of Mark Moore about the creation of public value. As with Moore, he says that the mission should be the focus. Improvement in performance achieving the mission (i.e. creating the required public value) needs to be the fundamental objective of the reform program. This makes a lot of sense in local government, where the ‘why’ often becomes unclear or generic.

His second principle is to ‘win over stakeholders’. This is important within and outside your organisation to create a broad support base for reform. His third principle is to ‘create a roadmap for reform’. He suggests three phases; identify performance objectives; set priorities; and roll out the program. It is essential to formulate a vision and set a clear path for reform.

The fourth principle is to take a comprehensive approach. He relates reform to organisational redesign involving integration and alignment of leadership, structure, processes, infrastructure, people and performance management. This concurs with Rummler and Brache and their thinking about the ‘infrastructure’ required for sustained performance improvement, as opposed to episodic campaigns. This involves seeing the organisation vertically and horizontally. They talk about the various levels of an organisation (vertical) and the performance needs (horizontal). I have reproduced their ‘nine performance variables’ diagram below.

the 9 performance variables

The performance needs must be met by the organisational leadership to ensure that work flows smoothly across boundaries. I think that taking a comprehensive approach is particularly good advice for local government, which seems to naturally form silos based on disciplines or functions. Failure to integrate or align is often the reason that reform is necessary.

The last principle is about the importance of being a leader, not a bureaucrat. Ostroff believes that public service managers are inherently respectful of barriers and may hesitate to remove them. There needs to be a readiness to demolish barriers to reform. He says that they are also likely to have to establish trust and demonstrate their sincerity. The failure of successive reforms often leads to cynicism, which needs to be overcome.

Ostroff cautions of the need to be aware of present realities, respect the complexity of what you are trying to do, and to hold people accountable for both results and their commitment to the reform effort. These are key points for local government reform. Present realities include organisational culture and its resistance to change. The complexity inherent in local government activities presents special challenges during a period of reform. Finally, the lack of effort to measure performance and use results to improve seems to be a hallmark of local government. In a reform process there must be accountability if it is to endure once the reform has been implemented.

In a nutshell, formulate your vision, take your present situation into account, seek the support of your stakeholders, set a clear path, be mindful of the complexity in what you are doing, and hold people accountable. Good luck.

Lancing Farrell

Ostroff, Frank   2006. Change Management in Government, in Harvard Business Review, May.

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