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?

223 – Risk management in local government

By Lancing Farrell                                                                                                  730 words

risk taking


Is there a delegation for taking risks at your council? Does your council have a risk appetite? Are the strategic risks that have been identified appropriate? Are the operational risks relevant? Does the audit program decrease or increase risk?

These are questions that a colleague raised with me recently when trying to understand the way risks were managed at their council. I suggested they look at their risk management framework – how is risk assessed in terms of likelihood and consequence. This should explain the inherent risk, current risk rating, the target risk and rate the effectiveness of controls. It can make interesting reading.

Next, I suggested they look for their organisations lists of key risks – strategic and operational. These are usually in the risk register. This isn’t always easy to find. Someone in the risk department will have it. Most councils will have up to 8-12 strategic risks. There will be many more operational risks.

Councils are very risk aware. Some people describe it as risk aversion. I think this is driven by the multiple accountabilities that councils live with – the Minister for Local Government, the Ombudsman, the courts, the media and the community. Sometimes it is hard to know who is going to take issue with what you have done. Continue reading

201 – A response to Essay No. 4 – Local government and customer service.

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          250 words

direct action

Lancing Farrell has written an engaging essay that reveals many home-truths in customer service in local government. It is a bit on the long side but worth the effort to read. I have a few comments to make about what I think you can do to act on the ideas.

To begin, make a list of the services offered and who can receive them. Some councils call this a service catalogue. It doesn’t matter what you call it, make it. Once you have this list your strategy is becoming explicit. The choices made in developing the list reflect the strategy of the organisation in delivering services. For many councils, this will formalise custom and practice.

Next, re-design the systems for customer service so that there are fewer escalations and fewer requests channelled through councillors. It is expensive to handle normal service requests through a ‘councillor request’ system that has been designed to provide high level information to support councillors in decision making.  Improve website information, online payment, and online service requests.  Manage expectations and make services as convenient as possible.

Then, train and support Customer Service Officers in understanding the different capacities in which people present and to separate (and manage) private and public value expectations. This is easier than it sounds. Telephony companies do something similar when they train customer service staff to identify different customer types and to then treat them differently according to their characteristics. They even have special names for each type of customer.

Lastly, re-design services to ensure customers get what they need and that the value is visible.

194 – Essay No. 4 – Local government and customer service.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              4500 words

basil fawlty

Customer service is, and should be, a major concern for local government. After all, councils are service organisations. Sometimes there is confusion about exactly what customer service means, how it relates to public service delivery, and what aspects of service are most important to get right in local government.

This essay focuses on three hypotheses:

  1. That ‘customers’ in local government are different to the customers described in most customer service literature and encountered by most service organisations.
  2. There are six main opportunities for local government to improve service to customers.
  3. There are simple tools available that can assist councils in getting service delivery and customer service right.

Continue reading

188 – The council value proposition – what could it be?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         1100 words

Kano model and brand

There have been a number of posts on value. In the context of imminent rate capping in Victoria it is timely to revisit some concepts of value relevant to local government. It is easy to overlook the fact that public service expenditure is about creating public value.  Especially when revenues are being constrained and thinking is turning towards making savings and cutting costs.

In the diagram above I have used the Kano model from Wikipedia and positioned three key council services that many regard as ‘core’ services – the provision of public parks, waste collection from residential properties, and provision of roads. Each has been placed in a different place on the diagram and I will explain why. Continue reading

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 …

171 – A series: Managers as designers in local government. Part 3.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              500 words

design and thinking

This is the third post in a series of four. It addresses some of the challenges to design-thinking.  Jon Kolko has identified several.

His first challenge is accepting that you will be dealing with more ambiguity.

“It is difficult if not impossible to understand how much value will be delivered through a better experience or to calculate the return on investment in creativity.”

He says that ambiguity doesn’t fit well with organisations that value ‘repeatable, predictable operational efficiency’. This will be an issue for councils seeking to use design-thinking. For councils, there is an expectation that value will be created through efficient use of resources without any waste. The strong risk aversion of local government reinforces elimination of uncertainty, or at least pretending it has been eliminated. Embracing a culture or experimentation, customer value creation and risk taking will be very challenging. Continue reading

169 – A series: Managers as designers in local government. Part 2.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              800 words

rapid prototyping

This is the second post in a series of four. It discusses the second and third principles of design-thinking.

Models can be used to examine complex problems. In this context, the ‘model’ is an artefact of the design process that is used to ‘explore, define and communicate’. Typically this will include diagrams and sketches instead of (or in addition to) the spreadsheets and specifications usually used to analyse and resolve problems. According to Kolko, they ‘add a fluid dimensions to the exploration of complexity, allowing for non-linear thought when tackling non-linear problems”.

There are a number of local government services that routinely use models or design artefacts in their work. Continue reading

168 – A series: Managers as designers in local government. Part 1.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              800 words

empathy hand holding

This is the first in a series of four posts on managers as designers in local government. It might seem like an esoteric topic and hardly relevant, however, every day managers make design decisions, often in ignorance. There is now a body of work on how managers can use design-thinking to improve the customer experience and organisational decision making. I challenge you to say it is irrelevant to your council.

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. Continue reading

166 – Long read: Understanding the customer experience in local government.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         260 words

service guarantee

There have been a number of posts on services and customer service, with the most recent by Lancing Farrell . Each post has explored a different aspect of service or customer service. This post looks at customer experience using two excellent articles from the Harvard Business Review as a guide; the first is ‘Understanding Customer Experience’ by Christopher Meyer and Andre Schwager, and the second is ‘Lean consumption’ by James Womack and Daniel Jones.

In their article, Meyer and Schwager describe the customer experience as encompassing

“… every aspect of a company’s offering the quality of customer care, of course, but also advertising, packaging, product and service features, ease of use, and reliability.’

They make the point that in many organisations few of the people responsible for each of these activities have thought about how their separate decisions contribute to the overall customer experience. Worse still, if they do think about it, they all have different ideas and there is no one senior who oversees everyone’s efforts to bring agreement on what needs to be done.   This is local government’s problem with service delivery in a nutshell.

Womack and Jones define ‘lean consumption’ as ‘minimising customers’ time and effort and delivering exactly what they want when and where they want it’. They see it as transforming consumption in the same way that lean production transformed manufacturing. It involves customers and service providers collaborating to ‘reduce total cost and wasted time and create new value’.

How are these two ideas relevant to the local government customer experience? Read on …