227 – Frogs or bikes – I’d love to see that.

600 words (3 minutes reading time)                                                                   Tim Whistler

frog on road

I read Colin Weatherby’s post on the Vanguard Method and systems thinking with some interest. There have been a number of posts on systems thinking on this blog. It is not a new idea. I am intrigued by what makes the Vanguard Method any different to other applications of systems thinking. I am also interested in how it relates to concepts like public value. How does the Vanguard Method achieve better or different results?

As previously posted, I have some interest in the Vanguard Method. I suppose, I am sceptical about the likelihood of any method being taken up in local government if it relies on ‘counter-intuitive’ truths and if there is no detailed plan to say what will be achieved and when. It is always hard to justify expenditure of public funds without a written plan with measurable outcomes – even if everyone suspects the plan is ill-founded or optimistic. If you aim for the stars, if you fail you will at least land on the moon. A plan gives you something to measure the effort against and hold people accountable. After all, isn’t public accountability the aim?

It is also less risk to simply do the same thing that others are already doing and seek to improve using a conventional business transformation approach. There are many change management approaches and most organisations would have several already in use – Kotter, Lean, digital transformation, customer-centred design, Agile, organisational restructuring, etc. Couldn’t these all be bundled up and coordinated through a ‘systems thinking’ approach? Why should a council try to do something different? Play it safe, I say.

I am also concerned that if it is the customer who decides what the ‘problem’ is to be solved (which then defines the ‘system’ to be improved) and what matters about how it is solved, how does that constitute public value? Isn’t it simply a version of private value? A transaction about what each individual customer wants? What about the interests of others who may use that service in the future or who don’t use the service at all but contribute to paying for it? How are their views considered? I would like to see how the Vanguard Method impacts annual planning and the development of the council’s mandatory annual and long-term plans.

The idea that measurement of performance will assist staff to do their work better and deliver more value to customers is fine. I would have thought that should be happening already. But what about the performance reporting required by senior management? How do they have visibility of the resources being used to do the work and whether it is being done to the required standards? What about State government reporting requirements? People in the community need to know how their council measures up against other councils in delivering services. How else will they know they are getting value for their money?

My other concern is that improving customer-defined systems doesn’t solve the problem of what to do in the future to accommodate new customer demands. How do you plan for the future of your services when the system is being determined by the customers of today? They may not reflect the values, needs and aspirations of the next generation of customers. Plus, many councils are now developing service catalogues to describe the services they offer and define the service levels – how does that thinking fit into the Vanguard Method?

What happens to the role of leaders? If they are not there to set budgets, allocate EFT, make the big decisions and tell the frontline workers what to do and how to do it, what are they there for? How will they justify their positions in the hierarchy and be held accountable for the work being done? What if budgets are exceeded because more resources are needed to ‘solve’ customer problems than they have expected? What if fulfilling ‘customer purpose’ requires more EFT that they have allocated? It sounds to me like there is a risk that systems thinmking will allow the system to spiral out of control.

Isn’t management about having the skills to take the system apart, fix the bits, and then put it back together? Isn’t that why we have HR and finance and IT? Their leaders are specialists and they know what needs to be done in their area. What about the engineers, librarians, and social workers? They lead their functions with expertise and industry knowledge. They know industry best practice and aim to excel in their work. I fail to understand why everyone doing their best in their area isn’t the right way to deliver best value to customers.

I know this might just seem like an endless list of questions but I think they should have answers.

3 thoughts on “227 – Frogs or bikes – I’d love to see that.

  1. I’ll take a swing at a few of these questions, however I have a habit of writing my own…
    I’d take the position that a local government/council is not the same as a commercial enterprise, although many councils have reached into commercial spaces – so the confusion is understandable.. People do not choose where to live (and therefore their council) based on the commercial engagement with their council. It is therefore unrealistic to treat the residents as pure “customers”. A customer has the ability to seek an alternative product/service, or from an alternative supplier. The provision of council services is effectively a monopoly, due to the tax/rates collected and the sole-provider status for the essential or core activities of council.
    This is why the “respond to customer demand” doesn’t work. Council’s simply cannot resolve in the customer favour on every (or even most) request. It isn’t equitable. The responsibility of council lies in providing fair/equitable support for the local community, and in return, they pay their rates. The “fees-for-service” in the provision of additional services, such as processing a building/planning permit, user-pay at the gym/pool etc are only related to the individual choice to reach for extra. (although, I would argue that gym/pool access should be a right of every resident, and therefore either cheaper for residents, or free, as the rates are used for capital investment in the public good that is the pool).
    Meeting “customer demand” is not done on an individual basis, it is done on a group basis. The ratepayers/residents are the collective “customer”, not a group of individual customers. Maybe that’s the socialist/community development practitioner in me…
    Treat the budget as the resource required to operate the activity. Decide in collaboration with community what they would like, cost it out, offer this as a charge/levy/rates fee, and negotiate. Budget comes after the plan, not before.

    The future orientation is really interesting, and I think it is the responsibility of the planning functions of the organisation to engage the “customers” in a forward-looking discussion to inform their decision-making. Consider climate change. Plenty of people are putting solar panels on roofs, driving more efficient cars even though they will not feel the effects of climate themselves. People are capable of negotiating long-term decisions. We do it when we build a house, take on a mortgage, choose to have a child or avoid carcinogenic foods.

    Alex Smith


    • Alex. Good to hear from you. Some time ago I posted on how customers can be defined ( 6 – Customer, client, citizen, resident or ratepayer. Who are we dealing with?). In all posts on LGU, the term customer has been used to include citizens, ratepayers and residents. You are right in saying people typically don’t choose where to live based on their intended interactions with the local council. And they are essentially ‘captive for many local government services that they may need (a post on that here 157 – Captive customers. Why are they so special?). The fact that they have no choice makes it more important to understand each person’s purpose in placing a demand on a service, what their problem is to be solved, what matters to them about how they are helped to solve their problem, and what would be perfect if it could be done.

      I reckon there is a trap in the ‘fair and equitable’ approach. As soon as the service provider starts deciding what people need, there is a risk that the solution won’t work for every person or their problem. It is like the picture of the a group of children trying to look over the fence and they are all different heights and only one can see without something to stand on. The other children need different-size boxes. Deciding that there will be one or even two different size boxes to be ‘fair and equitable’ for anyone wanting a box wouldn’t actually end up being either. Each child needs what they need or they won’t be able to see over the fence.

      You make a good point about the collective and decisions being made on a group basis. Inevitably, local government can’t provide all the services that people might like to access for their rates. I think some decisions do need to be made that are by agreement of the community. For example, what types of services will be offered. I have used the example of car repairs in discussions. If someone’s car broke down outside the town hall and they came in and asked the council to fix their car, it is likely that that won’t be a service the council has decided to offer. They might if there was market failure in car repairs. That is the sort of decision the councillors would make based on what the community agrees is important. Not offering ca car repair service doesn’t stop the council officer behind the front counter from helping solve the person’s immediate problem by calling a tow truck for them and letting them use the council phone to call a taxi to get home.

      I am sure that community development practice is challenged by ideas like the Vanguard Method. I have seen it in play. But it shouldn’t be. The paper co-written by John Seddon with Locality (https://locality.org.uk/about/key-publications/saving-money-by-doing-the-right-thing) explains how social services can be improved using the Vanguard Method. What they describe in the paper sounds to me like what I have heard community development workers saying they would like to see happen. I would be interested in your thoughts.

      Take care


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