235 – My experience of management thinking in local government – Part 3: The frustrating years.

1000 words (9 minutes reading time)                                                        by Lancing Farrell

management experience pt 3

This is the last post on my experience of management thinking in local government. Writing about it makes it seem like a long haul. With hindsight, there have been lots of interesting ideas, many with potential value to improve services, but few with any practical method to make them useful. And less with a way to implement them across a diverse organisation like a council.

Sometime around 2017 I went back to seriously read more of John Seddon’s writing about the Vanguard Method. At this time, Vanguard had a launch for their Australian office in Melbourne, and I went along. Several Australian organisations, public and private, talked about their experience using the Vanguard Method. I wanted to know more. In 2018 I had the opportunity to fly to London and attend a masterclass on digital transformation being held by Vanguard. I met John Seddon and other senior staff from Vanguard. I also spoke with people from local government in the UK who had experience with the Vanguard Method.

This was fortuitous in the development of my thinking. After three decades I had arrived at an understanding of local government and the way it works that made me think systems thinking was the best way to improve the performance of services. The Vanguard Method provides a way to implement systems thinking that has been tested and proven in local government. It provides the method lacking in Public Value. It works with the culture prevalent at many councils.

Amongst the various counter-intuitive truths that John Seddon describes, the idea that you don’t change culture by setting out to change it, or reduce costs be setting out to cut them, had started to really resonate with me. It is an ‘obliquity’ problem. Like happiness, the harder you try to achieve it, the less likely you are. It comes from doing something else.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t respect the thinking of reductionist management writers I have studied. For example, I am sure that Henry Mintzberg, Peter Drucker and Gary Hamel understand the problems they write about. However, their advice doesn’t help you to act on the system. Likewise, Nigel Slack and his colleagues have lots of useful ways of understanding operational problems and helpful tools to work on solving them, but not an approach to improving the whole system.

Systems thinking makes a lot of sense in a local government environment. Our customers, the citizens in the community see what we do as interconnected. They see the system, or at least the need for one. They interact with every part of what we do. And they force us to integrate what we are doing, even when we don’t want to. They don’t want to hear us say ‘I’m sorry, but that is another department’ or ‘its not us, its the contractor’.

Alistair Mant makes the contrast between systems thinking and reductionist management crystal clear in his comparison of bicycle and frog systems – reductionists see systems (to the extent that they see a system) as being like a bicycle that can be taken apart and each component improved separately, and the bicycle reassembled to work better than ever. Thinkers like John Seddon and Russel Ackoff see systems as being like Mant’s ‘frog’ systems – the components are not so easily disassembled and improved without affecting the whole, and the reassembled frog probably won’t perform as well as it did before disassembly!

I mentioned earlier that I would come back to Peter Drucker. In 1973 he wrote an article entitled Managing the Public Service Institution. It is worth reading.

Drucker looks at why public service organisations are less efficient than business enterprises. He reaffirms public services as the ‘load-bearing members of the main structure’ of modern society, providing services that are essential to society. Despite this importance, he says the performance of public service organisations is unimpressive.

They have large budgets and require ‘ever-growing subsidies’ but are providing poorer service. Citizens are complaining about ‘bureaucracy and mismanagement’ in the institutions that are supposed to serve them.

Drucker saw public service organisations as reacting to criticism by becoming more management conscious and adopting the concepts of business management. He saw it as a sign that they realised they were not being managed, but it did not mean that they understood the problems in managing themselves.

This remains an important point. Councils tend to adopt management ideas from elsewhere (as discussed in these posts). No proven and accepted local government management model has emerged.

Drucker went on to identify examples of public service organisations that were performing well and he looked at what made them different. In doing so, he compared the public service to a business enterprise and noted that the challenges are similar in making work productive, the managers have similar work, and top management is structured similarly. What he saw as different was the purpose. The public sector has a different purpose to a business enterprise.

“The service organisation has performance trouble precisely because it is not a business. What being ‘businesslike’ usually means in a service institution is little more than control of cost. What characterises a business, however, is focus on results – return on capital, share of market, and so on.”

Drucker finishes the paper by listing what he saw as the requirements for public service success:

  • Ask ‘what is our business and what should it be?’
  • Set clear objectives and goals derived from their definition of function and mission.
  • Get managers who do their job systematically and who focus purposefully on performance and emphasis the right results.
  • Think through priorities and to select targets, set standards of accomplishment, set deadlines, and make people accountable for results.
  • Define measurements of performance and use them to provide feedback on efforts.
  • Audit objectives and results to identify those objectives that are obsolete or have proven unattainable, performance that is unsatisfactory, and activities that are unproductive.

I have spent a bit of time talking about this Drucker article to show that not a lot has changed.

The criticisms of local government are the same today. Stephen Goldsmith in his books (The Responsive City comes to mind) dissects in detail the lack of trust in government, growing bureaucratisation of services, and the need to be more responsive to citizens (he describes the ‘Amazoning’ of services and ‘retail government’). And local government is responding to those criticisms in the same way – searching for yet another business management idea to implement that might do the trick.

Now we have lots of new ideas – smart cities, big data, customer apps, nudging, etc. Few of the management ideas that are taken up are ever really evaluated (another point well made by Goldsmith). CEOs introduce them and then move on. Most do not work easily in local government, as I have tried to show in describing my experience at several councils across 30 years.

The challenge today, as I see it, is to work out a way to address the list of requirements put forward by Drucker, and for that way to be focused on citizens. That way is more likely to be effective because it responds uniquely to the management challenges of the council, it works with organisational and community culture, it is quick to implement, and it is proven to be effective across the range of services offered by the council.

My challenge to anyone wanting to knock systems thinking or the use of a method like the Vanguard Method is to ask – if not this, then what?

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? Continue reading

209 – Local government and humour – sometimes you just have to laugh.

Posted by Whistler                                                                                               400 words

Geelong Mayor

Image – The Geelong Advertiser, 2 April 2016.

There have been a number of humorous posts in the life of Local Government Utopia. And sometimes you do just have to laugh. Humour is often used in a uniquely Australian way to make a point. Often the point is quite serious, a I think it usually is in the case of local government.

For example, whilst the Mayor of Geelong, Darryn Lyons (aka ‘Daz’), parades as a figure of fun, the Council he leads is far from funny. If media reports are accurate, it is about to be sacked for bullying, poor leadership, and a general lack of competence. You could be forgiven for thinking that it was a mistimed April Fools’ day joke.  Many of his constituents think he is marvellous.  Some find this surprising but I think it goes to a fundamental and unfortunate truth about how local government is viewed by many in the community

A colleague related a story to me about the Mayor of Geelong.   Continue reading

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

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         1700 word

complexity knotted rope

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

182 – Public management, or management in public?

Posted by Whistler                                                          220 words

scaredy cat

I was reminded today of a practice that seems to have crept into local government with the increasing insecurity and risk aversion of top management. It is similar to the concept of ‘risk farming’.

The practice involves your manager avoiding responsibility by setting up meetings for anything that is happening that they sense could have a down side. In the past, a discussion with your manager at your one-on-one meetings would have sufficed. You could let them know what is happening and undertake to keep them informed.

Now, they are likely to ask you to set up a series of meetings involving them and anyone else they can think of who may have an interest in the matter. The purpose is to ‘keep an eye’ on the issue and ‘support’ you in seeing it through. At the meetings you become publicly accountable for your management of the matter.

In the event that the matter blows up, your manager will implicate everyone else involved and they will be witnesses to your failure. Your manager will no longer be held accountable for your performance – after all, there was a whole group of people ‘supporting’ you.

I am old enough to remember when a manager would provide support by encouraging and advising, and by standing by your side when things were getting tough. They don’t seem to be able to get out of the way fast enough now.

As someone said to me recently, when people don’t know something they get sacred and when they get scared their aversion to risk goes up.

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

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              300 words

design thinking wordle

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 …

172 – Fear transmission. What happens when managers’ contracts start to not be renewed?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                         630 words

reject

I was talking to a colleague who has worked at a couple of councils where managers have not had their contracts renewed. She was describing the impact it had on other managers. I was interested in why it is happening, how it has happened and exactly what impact it has had.  Since that discussion I have heard of many more managers who have not had their contracts renewed.  It is almost as if the revolutionisation process has reached a new layer of the organisation.

The first manager was not re-appointed almost a year out from the expiration of their contract. Continue reading

170 – ‘The Utopia of Rules – On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy’ by David Graber.

Posted by Whistler                                                                          620 words

Utopia of Rules cover

Every so often I come across an interesting book that challenges orthodox thinking. This is one of those books. Published earlier this year to a mixed reception, as a bureaucrat I found it rewarding reading. It was also reassuring – maybe we aren’t the half-wit brethren of private sector management. Perhaps the private sector is a poor emulator of public sector bureaucracy?

There are too many interesting and thought-provoking passages in the various essays making up the book to mention them all. I have reproduced some favourites below.

“The rise of the modern corporation, in the late nineteenth century, was largely seen as a matter of applying modern, bureaucratic techniques to the private sector – and these techniques were assumed to be required, when operating on a large scale, because they were more efficient than the networks of personal or informal connections that had dominated the world of small family firms.” (p.11)

This is an intriguing thought when you consider Peter F. Drucker’s observation that by the 1970’s public sector organisations were unsuccessfully copying private sector business management ideas. Continue reading

165 – Decision making: How dialogue becomes action

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                                             960 words

emperors new clothes

Image

This last post in the series on decision making discusses the importance of design operating mechanisms that promote free flowing and productive dialogue to enable decision making. The setting in which dialogue occurs is as important as the dialogue itself.

 Ram Charan says this will be evident in the social operating mechanisms if people feel able to speak with ‘openness, candour, informality and closure’. He discusses each in turn:

  • Openness means that the outcome is not predetermined. There is a willingness to hear all sides in a safe atmosphere of ‘spirited discussion, learning and trust’.
  • Candour is willingness for people to speak the unspeakable, to expose unfulfilled commitments, to air the conflicts that undermine apparent consensus. People express their real opinions, not what they think team players are supposed to say. Candour helps eliminate the ‘silent lies and pocket vetos’ that occur when people agree to something that they have no intention of doing. It prevents reworking and revisiting decisions and reducing performance.
  • Informality encourages candour. Formality suppresses it. Informality also reduces defensiveness.
  • Closure imposes discipline. At the end of a meeting people know exactly what they are expected to do. It produces decisiveness by assigning accountability and deadlines to people in an open forum.

In local government there can be a notable lack of candour – speaking up can have consequences. Continue reading

164 – Who should push back with the councillors? The CEO, Directors or Managers?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          600 words

chess

I think this is a good question and it is one that every manager will ask themselves at some point. It may take a bit of experience to ask it. Individual councillors regularly ask for the organisation to do things that are outside policy or they become conflicted. So who should be saying no?

In many councils there has been an organisational correction about the type of contact councillors can make with staff. Usually this happens after a councillor has attempted to influence a junior staff member to do something outside policy. When councillors complain about the staff member because they won’t do what they asked (or if the officer complains) the organisation reinforces the rule that councillors can only talk to senior officers – i.e. the CEO, Directors or Managers.

This partially solves the problem and often introduces new problems. Continue reading