210 – Is innovation over-rated in local government?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                         1100 words

patched road

I was recently reading an article in Aeon magazine entitled ‘Hail the maintainers’. The central idea is that ‘capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more’. I think you could replace ‘capitalism’ with ‘local government’, although I am not sure that we are excelling. We are certainly preoccupied with trying to be innovative (or at least being seen to be innovative).

The authors, Lee Vinsell and Andrew Russell, believe that innovation is the dominant ideology of our era. Pursuing innovation has inspired both technologists and capitalists. It has also attracted critics.

“What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives that the vast majority of technological innovations. “

The idea that local government must be more innovative reflects the willing (and often mindless) adoption of populist ideas from the private sector by local government.   After all, being innovative is sexier than doing what we have always done but making sure we do it well. Continue reading


206 – ‘The Outstanding Organisation’ by Karen Martin.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                         870 words

the outstanding organisation

This is a forthright and practical book full of inconvenient truths for local government. I suppose its relevance to local government depends on whether or not you believe that becoming an outstanding organisation is either possible or desirable. Karen Martin says that people know excellence when they see it and they know when they are not excellent. But do our leaders in local government?

This is another book (and I am repeating myself here) that everyone reading it who works in local government will wish they had read years ago. The key idea is that it is chaos that prevents organisations from becoming excellent. Martin says that managers and workers often don’t see the chaos or its causes. In many cases the behaviour causing the chaos is habitual and invisible. Typically, she says organisations respond to chaos by:

  • Becoming accustomed to it so that they think it is normal.
  • Recognising it but thinking that there is nothing that can be done about it.
  • Embracing it as a good thing and developing skills in coping with it.

Councils do all three to a greater or lesser extent. Continue reading

198 – Essay No. 5 – Local government and leadership.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         1300 words

Mark H Moore strategic triangle

Mark H. Moore’s ‘strategic triangle’ – the basis for value-led public sector management

I have been thinking about leadership a lot recently. It has been a recurring theme in posts on this site. Reading Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book has challenged my thinking about how leaders work and what motivates them. It has reinforced some of my scepticism about leaders and why they do what they do. I tend to agree with Peter Drucker’s questioning of the distinction between leadership and management. Ultimately, organisations, particularly in the public sector, have to be managed. The idea that somehow managers aren’t leaders or that leaders aren’t managing doesn’t make sense.

Having said that, I can think of organisational leaders I have known who couldn’t manage. At some point they just ticked the leadership box and assumed the position! Pfeffer explains how and why everyone then goes along with it. Once you are a leader it seems you can get to stay there without any real scrutiny and accountability for your performance. That has definitely been my experience in local government.

I keep imagining myself working in an organisation with an effective leader who manages the organisation for high performance (not career advancement). One that provides clear strategy, direction and goals.  One who coordinates effort to  across the organisation to achieve those goals. In particular, I have been thinking about how they could do that in local government. 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

195 – Leadership connections and disconnections – some thoughts on Jeffrey Pfeffer’s ‘Leadership BS’

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         950 words

leadership BS

This is a new and interesting book. Promising to ‘pull back the curtain’ to show how leadership really works, Jeffrey Pfeffer (Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Stanford Graduate School of Business) argues that ‘much of the oft-repeated wisdom on leadership is based more on hope than reality. This appealed to my pragmatic, rationalist view of the world. Things are not always what they seem (or how people would like them to seem).

It is a provocative book and reading it will challenge those who subscribe to the current leadership orthodoxy. In the Preface, Pfeffer compares management to medicine and highlights the progress modern medicine has made by rooting out the charlatans and quacks, and introducing science into the practice of medicine. He revisits this comparison in Chapter 8 when he provides advice on ‘confronting the reality of organisational life’.

This is where the ‘rubber hits the road’ after an interesting and thought provoking read through the first seven chapters covering why fables cause problems; why leaders aren’t modest; how authenticity is misunderstood and overrated; whether leaders should (or do) tell the truth; where trust has gone; why leaders ‘eat’ first; and how to take care of yourself.

In Chapter 8, Pfeffer starts with a discussion about the difference between management science and medical science. Continue reading

193 – ‘Losing my importance’ (with apologies to R.E.M).

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          350 words

feather duster

I was talking with a colleague recently about a matter that I believed was important that wasn’t being addressed and my thoughts on why this was happening. He made a salient comment – the longer resolution is delayed, the less important the matter becomes. Over time it will lose its importance. 

How often have you heard people say ‘if it was important, it would have been done by now’. Working in local government is a constant battle between the urgent and the important, and finding out what is really both urgent and important. Social media has injected a definite sense of urgency into political problems, but are they really important?

I have often wondered why managers have such difficulty seeing the difference. The following matrix can be a helpful way to focus your attention.

important and urgent matrix

If a distant fire front is left burning it is understandable if it ceases to become important. Either people become accustomed to it or they don’t see the need for action. Far more attention is generated by the spot fires started by embers from the fire front and generating lots of busy work. They are usually at your feet and visible to everyone and there is immediate heat if they are left unattended.

In comparison, better planning and decision making is always deferred when distractions present themselves. I know many managers whose daily work is driven by the emails that they receive throughout the day – they continually scan their inbox for the next thing to do.  It is easier than getting their minds around the hard stuff of management.

On the flip side, I once had an experience when I was the acting Group Manager and I was unsure of the importance of a document I had received. I asked the Personal Assistant to the Group Manager whether or not she knew if the document was important. Her response was an insight into her 20 years as a personal assistant to Group Managers. She said ‘that’s your job – make it important’. So I walked down the hall and handed it to a manager and asked him to act on it.

Instant importance.

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.