205 – ‘We don’t need to be clever – just less stupid’, The Age 23 February 2016.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         700 words

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I read this article and though it was fortunate that the writer, author and polymath Satyajit Das, hadn’t been dealing with his council. No doubt a greater attempt would have been made to feign ‘one stop’ service but if it was anything but a simple matter, he would have come across the same dysfunction. His acuity is evident in his analysis.

Das’s dealings with his bank highlighted how the quest for efficiency and lower costs has achieved the opposite result. This is a recurring theme in the writings of John Seddon about the public sector. Das lists six sources of ‘unproductive and inefficient’ failures that he believes are now common in many organisations.

  1. Tasks have been fragmented across different locations and the simplest activity is now complicated.
  2. There is no continuity. ‘One person is not accountable for the complete activity. Workers lack any idea of how what they are doing, or not doing, affects the whole process overall’.
  3. Staff lack the skills and knowledge required.
  4. Performance measurement has lowered, rather than improved, performance. Staff actions detract from results instead of helping achieve them.
  5. Leadership is lacking in ‘domain knowledge’ (i.e. valid knowledge in a particular area).
  6. There is a tendency to see history as old and irrelevant. The latest technological wizardry is the best solution to any problem. Valuable lessons from the past are routinely ignored.

There have been a number of posts on these very topics. The fragmentation of tasks across functional areas and the resultant lack of ‘end to end’ management of services is commonplace in local government. Functional responsibilities and professional disciplines dominate thinking about organisational structure. This makes cross-organisational processes to deliver services more complex and prone to failure.

Staff skills and knowledge in the work they are doing is not always an issue for councils, especially in simple jobs. However, there are areas that frequently experience problems. One of these is customer service where front line staff are often casual and lack knowledge about the organisation (councils offer many services and products in ways that vary)

Performance measurement is usually not implemented in any systematic and effective way. Councils that say they are measuring performance are usually just measuring activity and inputs. Where activities are measured, it does tend to have the effect described by Das. For example, waiting time and queuing in call centres is often measured. Targets are set for the time to answer, number of callers in the queue, and the time spent handling each call. The result is ‘dumped’ calls when the customer service officers struggle to meet their targets and callers are just put through to officers in other parts of the council without introduction in the hope that it is the officer who can help.

Leadership lacking in domain knowledge is a particular problem with so many senior managers having been quickly promoted through functional areas. Many do not have deep experience in the delivery of the services they are responsible for. They may have managed it for a period of time but they don’t have deep knowledge. Generic management skills are seen as adequate.

Lastly, the lack of interest in, and respect for, lessons from the past has become a feature of local government management. The latest management fad is more likely to be pressed on staff than they are to be engaged in careful analysis of what is happening and has happened. It takes time to understand what is really going on before making any interventions to change the way services are delivered. Few leaders on the way to the top have this time. They know they will be rewarded for implementing the latest management idea.

The dysfunction Das has described can be used to create a useful checklist for your council:

  • Have you integrated tasks to deliver services through coordinated cross-functional processes?
  • Are staff in key roles affecting customer experience well trained and knowledgeable?
  • Is performance measurement focussing effort and providing feedback for improvement?
  • Do leaders demonstrate genuine and deep domain knowledge?
  • Are lessons from the past well regarded and used in solving current problems?

How do you rate?

Das, Satajit, 23 February 2016. ‘We don’t need to be clever – just less stupid’.

Seddon, John 2014. The Whitehall Effect.

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