148 – Decision making in local government. A series.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              400 words

HBR january 2006 cover

This series of posts explores decision making in local government and the connection to planning and strategy. I have postulated for some time that the inability of council’s to make difficult decisions leads to failure to decide on strategy which prevents prioritisation of action. See what you think.

Decision making processes in local government can be episodic, slow, disempowering, inconsistent and frequently disconnected from either strategy or operational needs.

This is often the result of the primary plan (i.e. the Council Plan) essentially being a political roadmap for the councillors term in office; an annual planning process to connect that plan to operations through departmental or business unit plans; a lack of clear guidance on decisions that can be made under delegation in compliance with agreed plans; and the absence of a responsive process for making new and strategic decisions.

Decision making is not helped by the risk averse nature of public service and the harsh criticisms levelled at government when risks are taken and they don’t come off.

Local government needs to be capable of making more decisions and decisions that are high quality and consistent. This is what communities and commentators are asking for. I know an editor of a local newspaper who commented that he didn’t want to ‘get on the council’s case’ about what they do but that the random nature of their decisions made it impossible for him not to do so. He couldn’t find his way to support the council, even though he knew they were making decisions under intense pressure from competing interests. They just weren’t good enough at making consistent and justifiable decisions.

The changing expectations of service, rapidly moving economic and social changes and the growing demand for infrastructure and facilities all require councils to make more frequent strategic decisions that commit organisational resources to the highest priority activities. All too often the decision making is too slow and the process underpinning decisions doesn’t gather community support.

This series of posts discusses some of the factors contributing to this situation and attempts to provide some practical and feasible alternatives.

The posts will draw on ideas from several articles published in the Harvard Business Review in January 2006:

  • ‘Who has the D? How decision roles enhance organisational performance’ by Paul Rogers and Marcia Blenko.
  • ‘Stop making plans, start making strategy’ by Michael Mankins and Richard Steele.
  • ‘Conquering a culture of indecision’ by Ram Charan.