231 – A New City O/S – Stephen Goldsmith and Neil Kleiman.

875 words (4 minutes reading time)                                                               by Lancing Farrell

distributed network

I have also been reading Goldsmith and Klein’s bookA New City O/S. It is a very interesting treatise on a potential future model for local government, particularly the argument for distributed governance. As Colin Weatherby has described, it is a researched and expert work.

I found the concept of distributed governance quite interesting. In some ways, all councils already operate using a version of this model for some services. Typically, this would be in community services where the council, State and not-for-profit organisations often combine to provide a facility, grant funding, and the actual delivery of the service. I think it would be a big challenge for many councils to adopt distributed governance across all services because of the loss of control.

The many sources of accountability for councils tends to make them risk averse and control focused. This is also a key argument for change made by Goldsmith and Kleiman.

“… the very rules designed to frustrate graft and waste now also frustrate employees who are ‘continuously monitored and investigated by auditors, judges, budget examiners, performance evaluators, legislative committees, public watchdog groups, clientele associations, citizen bodies and media organisations eager for a good scandal’.”

The limitations on delivering services that meet the needs and expectations of citizens are self-imposed by the sector and its regulators. The sources of local government accountability has been the topic of a previous post. In Australia, as in the US, it is a constraint on innovation and improvement.

It is worth re-capping on what Goldsmith and Kleiman describe as distributed governance. It is hard to find one succinct definition of what it is, and there are many partial descriptions where there is discussion of why it is needed and how it works. I have assembled several of those descriptions in my attempt at a definition.

Distributed governance places the city at the hub of civic work, with ‘real communications, coordination and connections’ across a broad range of third parties, including residents, contractors, community organisations, local institutions and non-profit and for-profit organisations. It leaves behind strict rules and tight control of information. It is customer-focused and has speed and flexibility to find partners to provide services with autonomy. At the centre, the city provides standards and guides overall system operations with clear directives. It is less involved in delivering services, and more involved in ‘setting roles and rules for conduct, quality, equity and privacy’.

It is clearly intended to be a distributed system. In brief there are three main types of systems or networks identified by Paul Baran, a pioneer in communication networks and the development of the internet.

Baran networks

Most councils use a centralised model in both how they work as an organisation and in the way they deliver services to their community. There might be a decentralised model for some services, typically internal business partners or partnerships for community services. The flexibility and responsiveness potentially available from a network is certainly attractive when considered in comparison with the rigid bureaucracy common to most councils. However, does it adequately consider the political nature of governance in councils?

For it to succeed in local government, a distributed model would need a clear and common purpose. What direction is it going in and who is steering? Without this clarity it could easily fragment into a set of networks, much like the functional silos that exist in many councils. It would also need information symmetry. This is a key point made by Goldsmith and Kleiman, and why they have focused so heavily on the need for a new O/S to enable distributed governance. The open and free flow of information between all parties is the way common purpose is created and fulfilled. But would this be enough?

Working in a distributed network, in some ways akin to network alliances more common in business (although I am sure Goldsmith and Kleiman would say not), is a departure from the way most councils have traditionally operated. Councils rely on contracts and other formal agreements with other entities when working together. It gives certainty and control. Politicians are often uncomfortable leading organisations responsible for ensuring that a community receives services if those services are being left to others to deliver as and how they can. It comes back to the accountability question – who is responsible for the services delivered using distributed governance?

My final comment in relation to A New City O/S is in relation to measurement. Goldsmith and Kleiman emphasise the importance of measures (and using technology to make and report on measurements) in ensuring that the O/S for distributed governance works. The need to ‘migrate from the measurement of activities to the measurement of outcomes’ is mentioned repeatedly. As is the importance of measuring problems solved, rather than compliance with rules. This I strongly agree with.

Measures give control. If they are effective measures of fulfilment of purpose as described by John Seddon, or, in the case of Goldsmith and Kleiman, the outcomes or problems solved, and they are used by staff delivering the service to understand performance and make corrections as required, they can immediately improve services.

Maybe, of all the ideas in A New City O/S, changing the way we measure is the most relevant and doable.

229 – Coronavirus and local government – time for a new O/S?

800 words (4 minutes reading time)                                                           by Colin Weatherby

A new city operating system cover Goldsmith

This is the first in a series of posts requested to discuss the Coronavirus and local government services.

I recently read ‘A New City O/S – The Power of Open, Collaborative and Distributed Governance‘ by Stephen Goldsmith and Neil Kleiman. Some time ago I read ‘A Responsive City‘ by Stephen Goldsmith and this latest book takes Goldsmith’s thinking about cities and their governance to a new level. As a former Mayor (Indianapolis), deputy Mayor (New York) and the current Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Stephen Goldsmith is well credentialled to discuss local government.

It is timely to read Goldsmith and Kleiman’s book as local government services adapt to the Coronavirus, react to ensure the safety of staff and the community, seek to understand emerging service demands, and start to look ahead at recovery and the best way to deliver services post-Coronavirus. Continue reading

225 – Why do we struggle to achieve capital expenditure targets?

By Lancing Farrell                                                                                                      1250 words

the planning fallacy.png

I was reaching into the archives to re-run a popular post on how councils fail to complete their targeted amount of capital works each year when a colleague pointed me in the direction of a recent podcast on Freakonomics Radio. The podcast, Here’s Why All Your Projects Are Always Late — and What to Do About It,  provides insights into the nature of the problem facing councils and provides some practical solutions.

You might want to start by reading that post from the archives.

In the podcast several key reasons for projects not being completed on time and within budget are discussed. Those most relevant to local government include the planning fallacy, optimism bias, overconfidence, and strategic misrepresentation.

Let’s start with the planning fallacy.

There are a lot of reasons why that project you planned can take way longer than you anticipated, and cost way more. Outright fraud, for instance — the lying, cheating, and stealing familiar to just about anyone who’s ever had, say, a home renovation … There’s also downright incompetence; that’s hard to plan for. But today we’re talking about the planning fallacy, which was formally described a few decades ago by the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

This quote sets the scene nicely. Lots of things can contribute to a project not being completed on time but our inability to accurately estimate the time required to complete a project sets it up for failure. Continue reading

207 – Mills, mines, refineries and networks – what do they have to do with local government asset management?

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                          1000 words


I was talking to a colleague who recently attended a well organised and highly informative national conference on asset management. It was a pity that only three people of the three hundred attending came from local government. The rest were from sugar refineries, steel mills, manufacturing, energy supply, defence, food production, mining, ports, railways, airlines, telephony and numerous other organisations from across Australia. Apparently there was a lot to be learned. So why was local government absent?

Part of the explanation lies in the competing asset management conference run annually by the sector in Victoria. It is well attended by staff from many councils as part of their professional development and to support a sector initiative. I suppose councils don’t see any value in sending staff to a conference that doesn’t focus specifically on local government assets or the way councils have chosen to manage their assets.

A conference theme was disruption. Often it is outsiders who create disruption because they see things differently.  Sometimes it happens when insiders are frustrated by the status quo and they venture outside the organisation’s comfort zone.  Unfortunately, many organisations and industries are incapable of disrupting themselves.  Attending conferences run by your industry is much more comfortable.

It was interesting to hear from my colleague about how other industries view their assets and what they expect from them in the way they are managed. One key difference is that private sector has productive assets that are owned and managed to create shareholder value (i.e. make profits). The value created by those assets is captured by the organisation that owns them. It is different for most public sector assets. Continue reading

176 – In-vehicle GPS – Part 2: How every council can have it.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              550 words


In part one I discussed the features and benefits of in-vehicle GPS. Because councils deliver services at locations dispersed across a large geographic area and vehicle ownership is expensive and utilization is often low, in-vehicle GPS has the potential to provide significant benefits. It links the planning undertaken in asset maintenance systems to in-field work planning and delivery to ensure that resources are used efficiently to complete the planned work. The key barrier has been how to get in-vehicle GPS installed in all vehicles.

I think the trick to implementing in-vehicle GPS is the strategy and policy sitting behind it. Here are some tips. Continue reading

175 – In-vehicle GPS – Part 1: Why every council should have it.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                                              1100 words

in vehicle gps

I remember looking at in-vehicle monitoring devices in the 1990’s. The technology was basic and there was no 4G network. Since then councils have flirted with in-vehicle GPS. As far as I know, no council in Victoria has installed it throughout their vehicle fleet. This is partially explained by the industrial relations implications (see the next post) but I think it is really explained by the lack of focus on customer service and productivity that pervades the sector. Rate capping will change that.  Most councils wouldn’t even be aware of the potential benefits from the technology. Hence this post.

So, what are the features and benefits of in-vehicle GPS that councils should be thinking about? Continue reading

113 – Improving service operations. Finish with service redesign.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         1300 words

service redesign board

The first post on improving service operations covered service action planning. Both posts have followed a discussion about service improvement with a colleague in which he described a process he has been using with operational staff to work out how their work can be improved. This post discusses redesigning services when that has been an action identified in the service action plan.

If the need to redesign services has been identified in the service action plan there is a good chance that all team members are on board and prepared to discuss some big changes. This is really a prerequisite for significant change in local government, otherwise there is a risk that you are just ‘revolutionising’ people and will have no long term effect.

Stage 2 – Service redesign.

The first step is to separate the services with different demands, operations typology and performance objectives (this has been the subject of an earlier post). Then related services are grouped together. The last step is to redesign services to integrate similar services and plan implementation of the new service. This includes risk analysis of key aspects of the service and planning the new supervisory role required to make the service design work. Continue reading