92 – Strategy execution – why do we make it so hard in local government?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                                          570 words

laurel and hardy

Lancing Farrell’s posts have been interesting. Some good connections have been made with the research conducted by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes and Charles Sull. I am sure that evidence of each of the myths would be available for local government, but are they the only reasons strategy failure is common?

There is no doubt that lack of cross-functional cooperation, sticking to infeasible plans, under-resourcing plans, ineffective communication, and disempowerment of the distributed leaders by top management are widespread. There is no doubt that they all contribute to failure to implement strategy in local government. But are these the only factors?

I think that failure begins with lack of clear strategy to implement. Council Plans are often a collection of the ideas that councilors believe they were elected to implement during their term in office. All the ideas are added together by officers and put into a document that resembles a well thought out plan. The structure of most Council Plans is revealing – usually there are several ‘themes’ (i.e. ‘community’ or ‘infrastructure’, etc.) that have ‘strategies’ under them. These last for the life of the plan and, as a result, are usually high level because little is known about what needs to be done to achieve them. Then there are the ‘annual actions’ that sit under each ‘strategy’. These give the Council Plan some traction on the ground and are updated each year as ideas emerge that can somehow be related to ‘strategies’.

It has a definite ‘make it up as you go along’ feel to it.

The alternative is that the Council Plan is driven by officers who think they know what needs to be done. Their ideas are fed to the councilors, modified to take into account the councilor’s views, and published. Sometimes officers have a good sense of what is politically popular, needs to be done, and will be supported by the community. Sometimes they don’t. More often, they miss emerging issues because the ideas hatched within the organization and approved by the Executive are a bit old by the time they find their way into the Council Plan. I have worked in councils where most of the organisational effort is directed towards actions not included in the Council Plan and barely relatable to any official ‘strategies’.

When this happens, we stick to the plan anyway and try to deliver the promised set of actions and the ones that have come up that really have to be done.

This is where resourcing becomes a serious issue. When the organisation over commits through a public plan, like the Council Plan, everyone is put under pressure to juggle priorities and find money. Miraculously, there are savings available, which were not apparent when the budget was set a few months earlier, to reallocate to new actions. The disorganisation that accompanies trying to implement two sets of actions often leads to top management intervention to take charge and ‘get things done’. Their involvement in ‘super-managing’ implementation of planned and unplanned actions creates confusion and dependency. Capable middle managers feel disempowered and the less capable take advantage of someone else doing their work for them.

This is where the long-term damage to organisational capability is done. We get most things done (or at least it appears that we have) and it sets the pattern for the next four years of the life of the Council Plan.

The thing I find most amazing about this behavior is that it happens in lots of councils every year – and no-one calls it.