220 – A decision-making backlog – do you have one?

By Colin Weatherby                                                                                                700 words

decision making


I was recently talking to a colleague about local government decision making. There have been many posts on the topic (see some here, here, here and here). Our discussion turned to whether the common complaints made about the performance of councils reflect a decision-making backlog – i.e. not all the decisions that need to be made, have been made (certainly not on time).

A comment I heard from Professor Mark Moore had started me thinking about the number of decisions we need to make.  He says that today a government makes 10,000 decisions each year. It would be great to know how he came up with the number. His comment was made in the context of the mandate a government takes from an election – they can only campaign on a small number of key issues, which cannot provide a mandate for all the decisions they must then make.

It started me thinking about how many decisions a council makes each year. Working out how many decisions a Council makes in the chamber is relatively easy. I am not sure how you would work out how many decisions are made by officers under delegation from the Council or how many operational decisions are made delivering services.

I started doing some sums.

If a council meets every 2 weeks and has an agenda with 20 items on it, they can make 520 decisions each year. Even though some councils meet monthly and many don’t have 20 agenda items, let’s use 520 for the sake of the exercise.

Decision made under delegations to the CEO and from the CEO to other officers are harder to quantify. Let’s say that annually there are 2000 planning permit and related consents, 2000 food premises permits/inspections, 1000 building permits and consents, 500 road works permits issued, 500 local law or animal management decisions, etc. Let’s make it 6,000 decisions made under delegation.

Then there are the operational decisions made by the organisation to deliver services. A council with 700 staff and an operating budget of $100m and a capital budget of $30 million might make 300 capital project procurement decisions, 500 materials and services procurement decisions, 200 recruitment and performance management decisions, 200 risk management decisions, 500 decisions to resolve customer service escalations, etc. Let’s round it up to 2000 decision each year.

The big decisions in each category, particularly those affecting the whole organisation are usually made by the Executive – i.e. by the CEO or a General Manager in an Executive meeting after a group discussion. Say they meet for 3 hours every week. A briefing on a key decision, whether it is verbal from an officer or discussing a written paper, will take at least 15 minutes per item. Let’s say the Executive as a group can make 12 decisions per week and 600 each year. I know most councils say their Executive isn’t a decision-making forum but the reality is that collective decision making mostly happens at Executive meetings.

Decision making time and resources are a finite resource. Ensuring that all the decisions that need to be made are made in a timely manner is a finite capacity scheduling problem – i.e. a set number of decisions have to be made in a set amount of time.

I don’t know of a council that could tell you how many decisions it makes annually, or how many go through the council chamber or the Executive where there can be capacity constraints and bottlenecks in the decision-making process.

Nor have councils necessarily thought about the effectiveness of delegations to ensure decisions are made well and quickly by staff throughout the organisation. Typically, delegations are based on managing risks and they tend to require decision to be made ‘one up’ or by General Managers or the CEO. This tends slow down decision making by concentrating it in the hands of more senior officers and the Executive.

Making the required number of decisions each year requires planning and for decision making processes to be designed and managed – if councils want to avoid a decision-making backlog.

Moore, Mark (2016). South Australia State Government Showcase 7 Videos