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

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. Continue reading

192 – Boundaries, interfaces and thresholds. Why do we love them so much?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                         450 words

stile over fence boundary

I was at a meeting recently where officers were discussing who is responsible for different maintenance activities. They had developed a ‘demarcation information guide’ for the managers of facilities so that they could try and work out who to contact for different maintenance tasks. It told you who looked after fences, paths, lights, floor coverings, broken windows, etc. It started me thinking about local government’s penchant for boundaries (nobody suggested that an alternative could be service integration).

I think we like to set boundaries because it lets us focus on what is special about ourselves as a point of differentiation from other local governments. I once worked at a council where the CEO said that we should act as though the world ended at the municipal boundary. We were different to everyone else. He said to imagine that if you left the municipality you would fall off the edge of the world. As a leadership ‘device’ it certainly focussed attention on the municipality. It was a simple and effective way to differentiate the council – pretend there is nowhere else!

This approach reinforces the view that each council is ‘special and different’, rather than accepting that we have more in common than we have that is different . This view is evident when councils are reluctant to share systems or services. In Victoria we resisted municipal amalgamations and many councils still complain about them. I think it is part of our culture to resist ideas from outside our sector or organisation. This creates a safe and reliable place.

We also like interfaces. If we didn’t, why would we design our organisations around town planners, engineers, social workers and accountants? The functional structure of councils creates lots of interfaces between units, departments and divisions in the processes that actually deliver services. It is these interfaces that result in service failure and the resultant ‘failure demand’ identified by John Seddon. Work flows across interfaces, not up and down within silos.

And thresholds abound. There are the tiered levels of authority delegated by the CEO. The typical council ‘command and control’ structure, so criticised by John Seddon, puts in place lots of hierarchical thresholds. We have entry levels for employment. Anyone unsuccessful in applying for a senior role will be familiar with the response ‘we had other applicants already at the required level’ when you seek feedback.   We like to employ people based on what they have done rather than what they can do. Suppliers and contractors who are new to local government struggle to get a customer. Once you have worked for a council, the others will open their doors. Getting the first council is the hard bit.

I think that the attachment to boundaries, interfaces and thresholds comes from our desire to limit things –  the extent of our responsibilities; the extent of authority; the amount of risk we will take.

187 – A high functioning Executive. What would it take?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         1100 words


This is a question I was asked recently by a reader. Having read several posts critical of the behaviour of the Executive (What can a culture survey, an organisational self assessment, and your Executive’s risk appetite tell you?, The Executive. What exactly is their role? , Does your Executive suffer from altitude sickness?, and The Executive: filters, traffic controllers or drivers? ) she wanted to know whether I had a solution. Knowing that it is easier to be critical than creative, I cast my mind to thinking about the nature of the problem and some potential solutions.

I think the starting point is to understand the problem. In a nutshell, I think the following issues illustrate the problem:

  1. The Executive is overloaded with the small stuff handed to them by councillors (not the council). Much of it has to do with the personal idiosyncrasies of councillors and behaviours arising from their inability to work together as a group. It is dysfunctional, urgent and produces little value for the community. There are better ways for potholes to be reported.
  2. The Executive has to deal with high level relations with external organisations and strategic external pressures. These are often CEO to CEO relationships and cannot be readily delegated.
  3. The Executive is not putting enough time and effort into leading the organisation. Their focus on councillors and the external environment takes most of their time and energy. At the same time, they worry about problems 1 and 2 being made worse so they try to control organisational communication and decision making. When this is done ‘efficiently’ by time poor leaders it drives dysfunctional management behaviours.
  4. The Executive operates independently of managers and participates in the Senior Management Team (SMT) episodically. There is frequently no genuine and continuous engagement with the SMT in strategy and decision making. Managers are included in decision making when it suits the Executive – which is usually when they have the time and energy to do it. Managers are effectively isolated from information and the strategy decisions being made continuously by the Executive.

Obviously there are different solutions possible. Continue reading

184 – Long Read: What matters and what works. Why feasibility is important in local government.

Posted by Parkinson                                                                                                       380 words


I have a colleague who often uses an analogy that I have always liked but never really understood why. Recently I have discovered that it is called the ‘streetlight effect’ or the ‘drunkards search’.

In the analogy two people are walking down a street to where their car is parked when they realise they have dropped their car keys somewhere in the pitch black darkness. They must find the keys before they can go home. They are looking around blindly in the darkness for the keys when one of them sees a light further down the street. They then go and look for the keys under the light where they can see.

The two people can’t do what they really need to do so they go off and do something that they can do. Even if it will never achieve the outcome they want. He often uses this analogy when talking about matters of council policy. What I have realised is that he is questioning the feasibility of the actions being taken to achieve something important.

I was recently listening to a podcast of the first Cranlana lecture for 2012 on the topic of the ‘Good Society’ given by Professor Dan Russell. In it he talks about the importance of feasibility in public policy. He says that often ambitious public policy fails because of the unavailability of feasible actions to implement it. Professor Russell says that putting feasibility first is the answer to the challenge of how to make hard moral decisions. This seems like good advice.

It is a variation on the streetlight effect, where what needs to be done to achieve what matters is known but impossible. Instead, effort is put into doing something that will never achieve what matters but it enables something to be done. It is pointless activity but it makes people feel better than they would just waiting for daylight.

Professor Russell believes that you must first look at what is feasible before setting priorities for action – we must think about both what really matters and what really works. If we do not do both, he believes it can makes it difficult to convince people that the action taken is really trying to do something about what matters.

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

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 …

177 – Decision making: some tips for local government.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         420 words

HBR september 2015 cover

There have been a number of posts on decision making in a recent series. This post is a quick overview of further advice available from four Harvard Business Review articles in the September 2015 edition; ‘From ‘Economic Man” to behavioural Economics’ by Justin Fox; ‘Leaders as Decision Architects’ by John Beshears and Francesca Gino; ‘Fooled by Experience’ by Emre Soyer and Robin M. Hogarth; and ‘Outsmart Your Own Biases’ by Jack B. Soll, Katherine L. Milkman, and John W. Payne.

Read them if the ideas are relevant and potentially useful to you. I have simply cut the main tables from them and provided a brief overview of the context.

The first table is from the article ‘From ‘Economic Man” to behavioural Economics’ by Justin Fox. Continue reading