213 – What insight does the capability review of one council and the sacking of another give you into local government culture in Victoria?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         1500 words

insight light

Two interesting reports have been published in Victoria in the last 12 months – the Organisational Capability Review of Melbourne City Council in May 2015 and the more recent Commission of Inquiry Report into Greater Geelong City Council, released in March 2016. Each report provides an insight into local government culture.

As someone who has worked at three Victorian councils in the last 10 years, and who corresponds regularly with people working at another half a dozen councils, the insight is not surprising.  It reveals a deep malaise in the sector that has root causes in the political system, the ways our leaders are appointed, and general organisational leadership capability.

To begin, what are the discoveries in these two reviews of major Victorian councils?

The review of capability at Melbourne City Council was conducted by the council with the objective of ‘future proofing’ the organisation by strengthening the capability to anticipate and respond to known and emergent challenges and opportunities.

In contrast, the review of Greater Geelong City Council was conducted by a Commission of Inquiry established by the Minister for Local Government in response to a number of issues, the most significant being a damning Workplace Cultural Review by the former Sex and Disability Discrimination Commissioner Susan Halliday.

The Terms of Reference of the Inquiry related to the adequacy of governance structures, in particular the clarity of roles and responsibilities, the efficiency and effectiveness of governance arrangements, the relationship between governance arrangements and the matters identified in the Workplace Cultural Review, and any other factors impeding good government.

The key findings in each report relevant to organisational culture include:

melbourne and geelong culture table

The similarities in the organisational issues identified at each council are noteworthy.

Silo behaviour features in both reports. There is an argument that silos promote specialisation and depth that can be beneficial in organisations because it provides both focus and redundancy. It also creates interfaces that can impede the flow of information, sharing of resources, and quick decision making. In councils, silos are also the way empires are built, and it is a way that our less capable leaders make complex situations simple. Break services down into discrete elements and each bit becomes easier to understand and control. But the impact on the whole service can be to make it ineffective. We see it every day. Melbourne and Geelong are far from unique.

Likewise, leadership groups that lack diversity, reinforce silos, and fail to provide vision are all too common in local government. This can be attributed to many reasons, including male domination of the key local government professions, over-simplification of organisational processes, and bowing to external accountability pressures. In part, I think it reflects the fast-tracking of career-focused leaders who feel they don’t have time to give meaning to, and link together, the activities that collectively make up a service. Doing this also takes experience and skill to organise and motivate people to deliver services to required standards, day in and day out. Unfortunately, many of our leaders just don’t know how to run a council. They might be handy at bits of the job, but they can’t string it all together and create the coherence necessary for effective government and efficient operations.

Council Plans (or City Plans) that have a short term focus on the projects or areas of interest of current councillors are common. After all, it is essentially their plan for their term in office. Why should they care about what has already happened or what previous councils have thought would be a good idea over the long-term? They are required to make the plan shortly after being elected and, not surprisingly, their election platforms always seem to feature strongly in the plan. Even without pet projects, a new council usually doesn’t have the experience necessary to put together a good Council Plan, especially if it is expected to pick up on long-term strategic intent and commitments.

The plethora of strategies and plans identified at Geelong, many of which are not linked to the Council Plan or funded, is also common. Councils can’t resist committing to a plan when action on an issue is obvious but politically difficult. These plans replace effective action and sit on shelves awaiting regular review. If a stock take is done on policies, strategies and plans, and a schedule for reviewing them is developed, it will quickly become apparent that significant amounts of organisational resources are required to do something that adds little actual value. I am all for policies, strategies and plans that are helpful in doing things. However, often, they are not. And when they are not connected to the main plan it inevitably results in confusion and people working at cross-purposes.

I have found that leadership development, talent management and succession planning are random acts at best in councils. The short-term contracts for senior managers (many are now 3 years) creates uncertainty and encourages managers to move rather than stay in situations where contract renewal is not guaranteed. Unlike the private sector, where managers are typically permanent and their performance is closely managed, councils use short-term contracts to limit the risk or poor appointments but it ends up making management of poor performance uneconomic. It is easier to wait and not renew contracts. If there is an easy way to do something and it avoids interpersonal conflict, you can be assured councils will be doing it.

Performance management, of the organisation or individuals, is typically weak where it exists in councils. Whole-of-organisation performance reporting is a figment of leaders’ imagination at councils where they believe they have it. Typically, it will be a collection of measures or indicators that are easy to count, which may or may not have relevance to the activity being reported on. Councils go through the motions of annual performance appraisal. At best, the performance development plan (PDP) and its annual review are part of a ritualised process that anchors the organisation in the past and in mediocrity. It is a barrier to flexibility, innovation and improvement.

The appraisal of the performance of individuals is the cornerstone of the rudimentary performance management system that exists at most councils. They have not always been around. They were introduced when incremental annual pay rises became available to staff in the 1990’s to prevent managers playing favourites. It was an attempt to force objectivity into decisions about pay increases. Unions, not management, wanted it. Of course, some managers like it now because it gives them a sense of control and creates the impression that performance is important. I have yet to see a system that is actively used and the councils that do attempt to use performance appraisal are usually managing poor performance not encouraging high performance. They have a problem to resolve.

The Greater Geelong City Council review included examination of the role of councillors as well as the organisational leaders. There is a connection, as the attitude and behaviour of the councillors towards each other and staff can set the standard for the rest of the organisation. If the councillors cannot or will not address strategic long-term planning it is difficult for the organisation to do so. Some of the findings were:

  • There is a poor understanding by The Mayor and Councillors of their legislated roles and responsibilities, and a continuing focus by Councillors on their individual wards to the detriment of whole of Council planning and decision making.
  • The portfolio system for Councillors has effectively created silos of Councillor interest and undermined collegiality.
  • Council decision making is not transparent, timely or efficient and is not based on any long-term vision and strategy.
  • Councillors have been in the habit of delving into operational matters and seeking to influence or direct Council officers in the performance of their duties. Some Councillors appear to regard Council staff as their ‘front-line instruments’ for responding to community pressures.

I would argue that these findings could also be made at every council in Victoria. Most are not as publicly dysfunctional as Geelong, but then they don’t have a Mayor who thinks Mayoral performance is measured in website hits! And there were numerous incidents of inappropriate behaviour on the part of a number of councillors cited in the report.  But this type of behaviour, usually to a lesser extent, happens everywhere. Councillors want to influence the organisation and provide the benefits they have promised to the community. They feel obligated to deliver to their constituency.

When they come up against policy, strategy and bureaucratic impediments, they often become frustrated. It takes time and skills to amend policy to enable their new objectives to be met. Sometimes those objectives are inferior to the current objectives. Sometimes they serve narrow and private interests, not the broader community. The bureaucracy and their councillor colleagues are not always cooperative. It is important to remember that councils are formed from unaligned individuals who happen to be elected at the same time. Many of them disagree with each other about their political goals.

Councils have not been good at ‘drawing the line’ between political and operational matters. Mark H. Moore would argue that collectively the councillors and organisational leadership form the ‘public management’ responsible for delivering public value. I agree, but it will take a much greater level of co-operation and collaboration than currently exists at most councils.