174 – The Executive: filters and traffic controllers or drivers?

Posted by Whistler                                                          760 words


There have been a number of posts about the Executive over the past 6 months (see What can a culture survey, an organisational self assessment, and your Executive’s risk appetite tell you?; Risk farming or good governance? How some executives avoid accountability; The Executive. What exactly is their role?;Does your Executive suffer from altitude sickness?; and The deep web and local government recruitment. ). Each has explored a different dimension of the Executive in local government – their comfort with risk, their role, how they support service delivery and make decisions, and how they are appointed.

This may be the last post on the topic (it now seems to have been a bit of a collective whinge) and it looks at what they really do or can do given the way councils operate.

One way of looking at the Executive from an organisational viewpoint is as a filter.  Managers can be seen as the coarse ‘sediment filter’ removing ‘rust and bad tastes ‘and the Executive as the ‘activated carbon’ – that special filter that removes the dangerous microorganisms to provide the ultimate protection. The movement is upwards through the organisation towards the council. I like this analogy. It works for me.

As a filter, the Executive puts a stop to the politically unpalatable, they avoid the risks they are aware of, and they seek to minimise controversy and conflict. But, I ask, to what end? I often wonder how much of it is about them and how much is about the best interests of the community? Often, they are making their own life easy and protecting their careers.

stop traffic controlAfter studying several Executives, another way to think about them is that they control organisational traffic. In part this is a safety management approach – i.e. stop people from getting themselves into trouble. I like to imagine the Executive putting up traffic control signs, setting out cones and donning their high visibility suits before grabbing their stop/go batons for the Executive meeting.

police traffic controlAt other times, I see them like the old time Policeman controlling traffic before sophisticated traffic light systems became widely used. In all weather conditions they stand in front of the traffic and give priority to some and direction to others. No discussion. No negotiation. Amidst the tooting of horns and traffic bustle they maintain control.

To my mind, filtering and both types of traffic control are reactive to circumstances. I often find myself asking whether this is what is required. Is the Executive really adding the value they could or should in these roles? I am sure the Executive doesn’t see itself in this way. They probably imagine themselves as well organised, strategic (I am sure the word is used often at their meetings) and effectively overseeing the operations of the organisation. A bit like air traffic controllers up in their tower – all seeing and all knowing.

air traffic controlTaking on the role of filter or controller might be the obvious thing to do in the absence of any bigger ideas or clear direction to take the organisation, but is it enough? I don’t think so. Communities deserve an Executive that is a strong team and shares a vision for the organisation and the community, and that is prepared to take risks (including personal and professional risks) to achieve their objectives.

If they were to assume the role of drivers – of productivity, improvement, direction and vision – they could providing a definite, considered and well argued way forward to work with councillors and the community to take the organisation in a common direction towards better outcomes.

I was reminded of the potential of executive power when reading part of the recently published book ‘Governomics – Can we afford small government? by Ian McCauley and Miriam Lyons. It is a really good read for anyone interested in government and public service in Australia. The authors quote journalist Mark Kenny as saying in his eulogy for former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, that ‘there are worse things than losing power, such as not using it while you’re there’.

governomics coverThey also cite Harvard psychologist David MClelland in writing about the two motivations driving people to seek political office (and, I think, executive roles in the public service); i) seeking high office as an end in itself to enjoy the prestige and recognition (you probably have a list of CEO’s you have worked for that fit this category), and ii) those motivated to pursue an agenda (a much smaller list).

In an interesting story (p.253), the authors describe how Gough Whitlam and the Labor Party fought to implement their agenda for universal health care in Australia in the early 1970’s, including risking electoral defeat at a double dissolution election after both Houses of Parliament refused to pass the legislation. They were re-elected and went on to introduce Medibank despite stiff opposition. It was an admirable piece of political strategy driven by a vision for Australia.

It would be wonderful to see the same commitment from our Executive in carrying out their role.