72 – Revolutionising local government. How long is it since you were last revolutionised?

Posted by Whistler                                                                          600 words

merry go round

I was talking to an experienced consultant who works with numerous councils recently and she commented about some of the councils currently undergoing ‘revolutionisation’. New CEO’s, in two cases new to the sector, were busily implementing their kitbag of management ideas. They seem to hit the ground running with a program of change. What are some of the features of revolutionisation and how effective is it?

I will start with effectiveness first. It depends on the measure. I can think of a few. Is it delivering on a promise to the councillors who appointed them to shake things up and create change? Is it is improving the performance of the organisation in meeting community needs sustainably in the longer term?

If it is the former, I would think they are mostly successful. Let’s face it, CEO’s have a lot of positional power to make people do things differently. They can change people, positions and processes at their will. And they do. If it is the latter measure, I would say no, unless they lucked out and happened to inherit a senior management group who have the support of staff and are already predisposed to the changes. Mostly, what you see is something quite different and then the main issue is whether the change will be sustained when they are not there forcing it along (usually in accordance with their career agenda). This brings me to the features of revolutionisation.

The first and most common feature is the spill positions at the next level to recruit a new Executive of people that the CEO can work with. This can mean people loyal to them or people with new ideas about running the organisation or people with more skills to do what is required or all of the above. CEO’s need people they can trust because their positions rely on the support of the council. Whatever the reason, organisations get a new Executive with no connection to or support from the broader staff group. You could be forgiven for thinking that the problems of councils always lie with the Executive, but always the last one.

The next feature that is also common is a restructure. Swap things around a bit. Often nothing fundamentally changes. No new services. No new processes. It provides an opportunity to make change tangible (to the council) and to spill positions at the next level of management. There are probably people there who won’t go along readily with the change or who have competing ideas. Better they find a job elsewhere. Otherwise they risk being seen as resistant to progress – the new broom must sweep clean.

The next feature is to introduce some new positions or units or departments that haven’t existed before. This is not just tangible change but ‘innovative’ as well. The most recent such changes have been ‘process improvement coordinators’, ‘lean implementers’ and ‘project management office managers’. Typically they have come with CEO’s from other areas of public service that have been exposed to more scrutiny and external pressure to change. There is nothing inherently wrong with these positions, often it is how they are introduced that makes the difference. There can be dramatic power shifts away from line managers who remain accountable for service delivery outcomes – they have to steer the bus but someone else operates the accelerator and brakes.

With hindsight it is a three act play that is performed regularly like turns on a merry go round – get trusted lieutenants, neutralise dissenters, and make changes that are visible. Kotter would give it a tick but the big gap is the lack of a sense of urgency or the ‘burning platform’, which only remains a problem until the next turn round, when it will be them.