86 – Ten sayings that define local government culture.

Posted by Whistler                                                                          970 words

grass dreaming

In local government we talk a lot about culture and forces that shape it. Often these forces are evident in the things that people say each day. This post explores ten of the sayings heard daily in local government and attempts to translate them.

  1. ‘We have set a goal on this issue, it is an aspirational goal’.

This type of goal has no basis in reality. It is an idea of what might be good if it happened. At best it is a ‘guesstimate’. No one knows whether or not it is feasible. Mostly, it is just frustrating because someone powerful has effectively avoided making a decision or creating conflict by setting a goal that everyone can agree to because it means nothing. An aspirational goal makes ‘motherhood’ statement seem like a specific and readily measurable output. I think we do it because it gets us out of a difficult situation at the time or it makes us feel as though we are setting meaningful goals under difficult circumstances.

  1. ‘Never mind if you can’t get it done today, there is always tomorrow’.

This statement is often heard when planned work has not been completed. It reflects the low value placed on time in local government. When available capacity doesn’t easily match demand, jobs are just deferred. It takes the pressure off managers to be organised and ensure that operations are well managed. The customer just has to wait. Given they have no other choice of supplier, why not?

  1. ‘Let’s just park that’.

This is what happens when you can’t find the answer to the question the meeting was called to answer in the first place. This regularly happens because meetings are seen as potential circuit breakers for intractable organisational problems. The cross-functional decision that no one has the right to make. The escalated decision that no one seems to have the responsibility to make. Whatever. Parking it is a nice way to say we will just wait and see how long it takes before it either resolves itself or explodes.

  1. ‘This issue needs some ‘blue sky thinking’.

This is how we describe the generation of visionary ideas that don’t always have a practical application. Some people call it dreaming. It usually happens when past approaches have not worked and there is pressure to be ‘innovative’ and come up with a ‘creative’ solution – dangerous territory for all involved. Whilst people in local government like to say they are ‘thinking outside the box’, or thinking ‘laterally’, in reality we really just like to think the way we always have (but be seen to be doing otherwise). Hence, the popularity of ‘blue sky’ thinking – it is all care, no responsibility.

  1. ‘If it is not broken, don’t fix it’

This is a favourite. It is premised on the idea that things break suddenly and without any warning. No one could have anticipated it or prevented it happening.   The idea that it might be ‘breaking’ doesn’t enter into it. We are not looking for signs that something isn’t working and might fail. No. Everything that goes wrong in local government couldn’t have been foreseen and anything that seems to be working should be left alone. Makes sense doesn’t it?

  1. ‘This will have to go upstairs; you’ll need to run that past (write name of senior manager)’.

I quite like this one. It implies that we are getting on with business by sending something to someone more important to make a decision. The fact that you might already have the decision rights, and they really don’t have time to make the decision, is irrelevant. It is going upstairs to more senior people. That has to be better.

  1. ‘Let’s look for the low hanging fruit’.

Usually, this means just choose the simplest option to accomplish a task. Who can argue with that? It has a resemblance to efficiency. If the outcome is not what you expected or need, at least you have acted. It is related to another old local government saying, frequently heard in depots, – ‘just keep moving; you don’t have to do anything, just don’t stop’. Anyway, the cockatoos always get the high fruit.

  1. ‘We need to get a helicopter view of this’.

This implies that a higher altitude view will yield some information not currently available from the ground. There is really no arguing with this idea, but in practice, the altitude sickness that seems to ensue once senior management leaves the ground limits the potential. You often hear about executives seeking a helicopter view but seldom see any benefit from it.

  1. ‘We really need a burning platform if change is going to happen’.

I don’t think people have arson in mind when they voice this view. It is more metaphorical. It really means that they need a crisis to justify making sensible management decisions – someone has to set fire to something before we have a reason to fix it (enter rate capping).   Without an imminent crisis, the Executive can’t work out how to explain to people that they need to change and put customer needs ahead of their own. I get it.

  1. ‘You need to run that past the Admiral’.

This refers to the senior manager nicknamed the ‘Admiral’ because they regularly say that they will have to ‘take it on board’. It could as easily be the ‘Window’ or the ‘Mirror’ – they need to look into it before they can make a decision on what to do. The ‘Grasshopper’ is another nickname – this is the manager who needs to find out about something before deciding (a reference to disciple in the television series Kung Fu). Everyone in local government has worked with an Admiral, a Mirror or a Grasshopper. It really just reflects the difficulty managers have in making a decision quickly. I wonder why?

Have you got others?  Contribute them via a comment.