155 – Decision making: Policy and decision making in local government.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                              750 words


This is the third post in a series. Policy should guide local government managers and their teams in making most decisions with the confidence that if the decision is challenged it can be assessed against the policy and shown to be justified.

Some decisions won’t be able to be made this easily and a ‘one up’ escalation or other simple decision review processes should enable a decision to be made quickly and efficiently. There will be some decisions that are outside existing strategy or policy that will need to be referred to more senior management for new thinking about the decision that is required.

In a high performing organisation, making decisions that are consistent with organisational strategy, policy and plans should be straightforward for the majority of decisions. Delegations and processes will be clear and supported. The escalation process for new types of decisions will also be clear. Anticipating challenges to decisions is essential in public services and there needs to be an effective process to accept and resolve challenges that leaves decision makers confident to make their next decision.

This isn’t always the case in local government, and sometimes it can be like working in a restaurant without a menu. The identity of the restaurant won’t be clear and the expectations of diners are unknown. Diners will ask for meals from all different cuisines. Orders will be placed for meals from Asian, Italian, French and African cuisines. Orders for fast food will accompany orders for a la carte dining. Some diners will want the meal to be home delivered or for the chef to prepare the meal at their home. Diners will arrive without reservations and ask to be served there and then.

Some diners have connections with the owners and if they are told they can’t have the service they want, owners will question staff about their decision making and senior management will over rule their decision. Chefs and waiting staff could have been trained at McDonalds or the leading Michelin star restaurants of the world. The kitchen and food storage may have been designed for a set menu, high turnover restaurant or a highly priced, high end a la carte dining experience – but not both.

As you can imagine, this would be a chaotic and unprofitable business that is likely to provide poor experiences for diners. Gordon Ramsay would have a field day making an episode of ‘Kitchen Nightmare’.

This is further evidenced by the following example from an interview for an administrative position, in which an applicant described their first experiences working in local government after 20 years experience in administration in fast food, video hire and other industries. When asked for a service by a resident, she checked with a colleague to confirm it was a reasonable request and that the service is offered. She was told “yes, we do that, and this is how we do it”. As she was advising the resident, additional information was provided by another colleague about the possible variations in service delivery that had occurred and could be possible.

Later another resident asked her about a different service. This time she was advised that the service was not available. As she advised the resident that they could not have the service, she was told about situations under which the service could be provided. As she explained in the interview, no one could tell her all of the council services when she started, or all of the situations in which service delivery could be varied, how and why. When asked whether she had felt capable in this situation, she replied that she hadn’t until someone newer than her started and it was clear to her that they knew less and she was more knowledgeable in her work.

Unfortunately, this is not a rare situation. The guidelines for making decisions about basic matters, such as whether or not a service is offered and variations that are available are often unclear and difficult to make clear. The reality is that for many councils, services are infinitely variable as customers are allowed to introduce variability into operations. There is either no reason that is clear to workers for refusing service requests or they are not confident to make decisions because they are frequently overturned on appeal.

The impact of allowing customers to introduce variability into operations without robust decision making processes is complexity and unpredictability that increases the likelihood of failure.