224 – Risk taking in local government

By Colin Weatherby                                                                                               900 words

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Lancing Farrell raised several important issues in providing advice to a colleague regarding risk management. How does a council balance the pressure not to take risks and fail, with the competing pressure (often from the same sources) to take risks and meet demands to create new value?  

Risk is an interesting concept and there are various definitions. I like to think of it simply as the uncertainties related to achieving your goals. It is about the hazards along the pathway as you make your way towards your destination.

Businesses that don’t take risks will fail. They become uncompetitive or customer satisfaction drops. Either way, they lose business to competitors taking risks to create value that customers want and will pay for. We can all think of the companies that have taken big risks in redefining a service or product to create a new market.

You are probably wondering what this might have to do with local government. Aren’t we just doing what we have always done?

Many councils are. Whether they should be, or whether they will be able to continue to do so, should be questioned. We now live in the ‘age of the customer’ – residents want personalisation, mobility, self-service, rapid response, and efficiency (efficiency for them, not the council). The variability introduced by customers must be quickly and effectively absorbed by the organisation. Complexity, by its very nature, creates risks.

In conjunction with mandated limits on prices (the rate cap) and growing numbers of customers (as Lancing points out, Melbourne is growing rapidly), the rising expectations of residents means that councils must do things differently. Different usually involves risk taking.

I recently attended a training session on developing an organisational risk appetite. It showed me how councils could identify hazards and manage risks differently, yet still satisfy the pressure to stop things going wrong while meeting the demand to create new value. It needs a re-think and a more sophisticated approach to risk and compliance. Continue reading

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196 – Making local government organisations simpler to manage – why is it necessary?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         1700 word

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I was at a meeting recently where the team charged with conducting an organisational self assessment (OSA) and preparing an organisational improvement plan (OIP) using the Australian Business Excellence Framework were evaluating progress. It was an interesting meeting of a diverse group of people. By the end of the meeting we had reached a common conclusion – a council organisation is complex and systems need to be disentangled and simplified so that it can be managed effectively.

The OIP actions were developed independently from the outcomes of the OSA. It was only after 12 months of effort to implement the actions that the high level of congruence between them became apparent. Very few actions relating to core organisational systems could be implemented without impacting on each other – they overlapped. Attempting to deal with them one by one wasn’t going to work but joining them all together would create a large and very complicated action.

There is an earlier post on complexity which describes some of the sources of complexity in local government. It helps to know what you are dealing with but that doesn’t make it any easier. This was reinforced by reading former Victorian Premier John Brumby’s excellent memoir ‘The Long Haul – Lessons from Public Life’. In reflecting on the last four years in which he has viewed politics as an outsider, Brumby comments on the lack of trust that ‘permeates almost everything we see and hear about politics today’.

He believes that part of restoring trust and credibility in politics is to give the public a better understanding of the complexity of the issues.

“When I first sat in the federal parliament, an older and wiser member told me: ‘For every complex problem there is a simple solution … and it’s always wrong’. We live in a world where the questions are becoming more complex, while the public appetite is for ever simpler answers: the kind that can be summed up in 140 characters or less”

My question is, do you think that people want to be bothered by the complexity involved in getting what they want through political processes? Continue reading

189 – Essay No. 2 – Local government, effectiveness and efficiency.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              3300 words

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People in local government regularly discuss effectiveness and efficiency. Often this happens in relation to pressure on revenues, such as rate capping. Most of the discussion centres on efficiency rather than effectiveness, and opportunities to stop delivering those services that are seen as ‘cost shifting’ from other government. The efficiency discussion is often not well informed. Frequently it focuses on inputs while ignoring outcomes and public value. Any savings are usually equated with cost cutting, not creating the same value at lower cost.

Australian researcher and writer Christopher Stone has published several papers on ‘false economies’. Each addresses a different aspect of productivity and efficiency in the public sector.

“Everyone has the right to know that money is not being wasted; that it is being spent as efficiently as is possible.” Christopher Stone, Decoding Efficiency, April 2013.

So, what is efficiency and how does it differ from effectiveness? Continue reading

180 – Long Read: Managers as designers in local government.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              300 words

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This is a long read compilation of the series of posts on the manager as designer in local government. For those who prefer to get the whole story in one go, here it is.

Some years ago I read a book called ‘Managers as Designers in the Public Services’ by David Wastell (Professor of Information Systems at Nottingham University Business School). It made a lasting impression on me. It is a book worth reading for its treatment of systems thinking in public service management.

More recently, I read two articles from the September 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review; ‘Design Thinking Comes of Age’ by Jon Kolko and ‘Design for Action’ by Tim Brown and Roger Martin. Each article extends the idea of the manager as designer with specific application to improve corporate processes and culture.

Jon Kolko discusses the application of design to the way people work. He says that people need help to make sense out of the complexity that exists in their interactions with technologies and complex systems, and that design-thinking can make this ‘simple, intuitive and pleasurable’.

“ … design thinking principles have the potential to be … powerful when applied to managing the intangible challenges involved in getting people to engage with and adapt innovative new ideas and experiences.”

The principles he is referring to are empathy with users, the discipline of prototyping and tolerance of failure.

Roger Martin and Tim Brown provide a related but different view of design in organisations. They see it as helping stakeholders and organisations work better together as a system. The focus of their article is the ‘intervention’ required for stakeholders to accept a new design artefact – whether ‘product, user experience, strategy or complex system’.

They argue that the design of the ‘intervention’ (i.e. the way a new product or service is introduced to users and its integration into the status quo) is even more critical to success than the design of the product or service itself.

In effect, there are two parallel design processes; the artefact (i.e. a new service) and the intervention for its implementation (i.e. the change management).

So, how is this all relevant to local government? Read on …

46 – Labor’s rate cap to hurt services and infrastructure, ratings agency warns’. The Age, 27 February 2015.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                         900 words

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Image from http://www.that-is-good-crap.com

This article follows an earlier piece in The Age,  ‘Plan to cap council rates at inflation could lead to service cuts and job losses in Victoria’ on 23 February 2015. Both articles are about the planned legislation in Victoria to restrict councils to rate increases at or below the Consumer Price Index from 2016 unless they seek an exemption from the Essential Service Commission. Some councils have already started to cut jobs to reduce expenditure ahead of rate capping. Others are forecasting cuts to their services and reduced maintenance or renewal of community infrastructure.

This is occurring at the same time that the State government is shifting more costs onto councils and national grants to councils are being frozen. I have previously posted on rate capping (see here , here and here). As you can imagine, rate capping is dominating talk within local government circles. Continue reading

29 – Local government shared services. Is it the silver bullet for rate capping? – Part 2

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         950 words

In the previous post, I discussed economies of scale and the cost savings possible through shared services. This post continues the discussion, starting with the implications of front and back office separation.

The history of ‘back office’ and ‘front office’ separation is worth some discussion. According to Seddon, it began with an article by Richard Chase in the Harvard Business Review in 1978. In the article, Chase recommends separating the ‘high customer contact’ and ‘low customer contact’ elements of the service system because of the different operations involved. Low customer contact operations are more efficient and, as a result, have lower costs and it makes sense to isolate them from the disruptive effects of customer interactions if it can be done without sacrificing service effectiveness. However, service effectiveness is exactly what Seddon believes has been lost in many of the cases he cites. Continue reading

26 – The first 25 posts. What have you missed?

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                                              1100 words

Writers have posted 25 times since the start of the year. A number of themes and ideas have been discussed. This post provides a brief overview.

The goals are set out in post 1 – track current issues and discuss the issues that are ‘everlasting, widespread and insoluble’ (using the least amount of words). A range of issues have since been covered from the daily media, day to day work life, and the things people often talk about but seldom resolve.

Post 2 and 5 discuss local government services – what we do and how we can define it. The conclusion is that local government needs to provide services that fit within legislated requirements, are responsive to broader community needs and expectations, and meet the individual purpose for each person receiving a service. Each service can be defined as a cross-functional process or value chain.

In post 3 the complexity evident in local government is discussed, including the involvement of customers in service delivery, the variability they introduce, the difficulty measuring service quality or setting service goals and measures, and the impossibility of separating service delivery from politics.

The impact of training on performance is discussed in post 4 in response to media criticism of the Australian government public service for its spending on training. The post suggests that understanding, documenting and improving processes would yield more benefit than providing more training for most councils.

In post 6 the differences between customers, clients, citizens, residents and ratepayers are discussed. Understanding which role someone has chosen to take in an interaction is important in determining the value they expect. This can be useful in differentiating between public and private value expectations.

Post 7 looks at public service job cutting and the link to productivity. Some key messages from the Centre for Policy Development report False Economies: Unpacking public sector efficiencies are discussed. The post identifies the importance of defining public value so that any changes to resource levels can be made in the knowledge of the impact they will have on the value produced.

Post 8 presents an imaginary script for an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Kitchen Nightmare’ in which he assesses the performance of local government as if it were a restaurant.   Hopefully it is both entertaining and thought provoking. What would Gordon Ramsay say?

In post 9 some emerging characteristics of people and councils are discussed. Obligatory empiricism, oblivious narcissism, and consensual lying are put forward as reasons why councils always seem to learn everything from scratch, leaders set out to meet their own needs first, and why people tell others what they want to hear for the sake of convenience.

Post 10 draws a ‘line in the sand’ with a discussion of the changes that have impacted in Victorian local government since the 1990’s. Part history lesson and part explanation of the present, the post concludes that the most influential change has been to the tenure of the CEO and their increased dependence on the goodwill of their council for survival .

Planning in local government gets a thorough airing in posts 11, 12, 18, 19, and 20. In posts 11 and 12 the current organisational planning processes is critiqued. Posts 18 and 19 suggest ways to better integrate planning. Post 20 discusses the role of the Council Plan.  All posts provide commentary on how to develop plans that are realistic, achievable and focused on delivering the value expected by the community. Constraints identified include the need to work within legislated requirements and the need for leadership to really understand ‘the business’ to be able to implement a ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ planning process.

In post 13 the role of policies and strategies is discussed. Are they becoming convenient but ineffective solutions to difficult problems, devices to avoid doing something that needs to be done, or just a way to be seen to be doing something?

Post 14 is an attempt to explain why councils stick with conventional organisational structures and avoid dealing with cross-functional processes; why systems seek to control risk and increase compliance without regard for producing public value; and why council culture encourages people to avoid making decisions. The discussion centres on what an organisational culture survey, an ABEF organisational self-assessment, and the Executive’s risk appetite can reveal.

Four books that should be read by every leader in local government are discussed in posts 15 and 17. The books are Recognising Public Value by Mark H. Moore, The Whitehall Effect by John Seddon, Improving Performance – How to Manage the White Space on the Organisation Chart by Geary A. Rummler and Alan P. Brache, and The Leaders Handbook by Peter R. Scholtes. Each book has a different focus and there is a mixture of public sector and business reading.

Post 16 discusses the rate capping proposed for local government in Victoria. The history of rate capping in Victoria and the long-term effects of it that are apparent in NSW provide a backdrop to a discussion about what councils can do in response. This post covers the potential for shared services and the potential impact on capital and operating budget cuts.

In post 21 the way councillors feel about their role is discussed. Do they feel inundated and manipulated or respected and influential? The difficulties they face as volunteers and in becoming skilled in their role, working together in an adversarial system, and coping with very demanding workloads, are covered. The message is stop complaining and support them more effectively.

What does a high performance local government organisation (HPLOGO) look like? In post 22 a methodology is proposed to define and create a HPLOGO. Based on the work of Andre de Waal, a set of characteristics of a HPLOGO are described (as actions) and prioritised.

Post 23 is a bit tongue in cheek. It is an attempt to pick up on the ‘chip on the shoulder’ prevalent in some parts of local government. Is local government a plaintive country tune or a majestic aria?

In post 24 an article by Frank Ostroff from Harvard Business Review (Change Management in Government) is discussed in relation to making high performance happen. He describes four unique barriers to change in the public service related to leader skills, leader tenure, rules that create inflexibility, and stakeholder resistance to reform.

Finally, post 25 looks at local government budgeting and how it is focussed on the past and has difficulty coping with improvement and innovation.   The need to balance investment in compliance with improving customer service and developing new services is discussed with reference to Christopher Stone’s work on public sector efficiency.