48 – Emergency management is a hidden talent. Why wait for a disaster?

Posted by Parkinson                                                                                       540 words

emergency flooding

In Victoria, all local governments have a statutory role in responding to municipal emergencies. They must have a committee including local emergency response organisations, and a plan that is maintained and audited. Dozens of staff are inducted and trained in emergency management and, along with their organisational leaders, are a virtual team that can be activated immediately when required. They hold exercises under various scenarios to test their ability. Emergency management is a capability that each council must create and maintain. And they do. Often very well.

It has been said that the public service is at its best in an emergency because tribal conflicts are set aside, the purpose is clear and agreed for once, and the rules become ‘flexible’ in order to be able to react to whatever the emergency brings. Under these circumstances, the public service becomes a responsive, powerful and focussed force. Why do we wait for an emergency to perform at our best? Continue reading

37 – Risk delegation. Who has it at your council?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         480 words

Have you ever wondered who has the formal delegation to accept risk on behalf of the organisation? I know that you probably spend most of your time dealing with systems that seek to reduce or eliminate risk, but what happens when risks must be taken? How do you assess and accept those risks?

My bet is that there is no system to accept risk and that your organisation has little understanding of the risks that are being taken by managers each day. I think that the absence of a system to formally assess and accept risks is the reason there are endless systems to get rid of it. I am not talking about the Risk Register and the big strategic or operational risks that are obvious to everyone. I am talking about the daily risks that arise when something hasn’t worked out the way you would like it to but work must go on. Continue reading

29 – Local government shared services. Is it the silver bullet for rate capping? – Part 2

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         950 words

In the previous post, I discussed economies of scale and the cost savings possible through shared services. This post continues the discussion, starting with the implications of front and back office separation.

The history of ‘back office’ and ‘front office’ separation is worth some discussion. According to Seddon, it began with an article by Richard Chase in the Harvard Business Review in 1978. In the article, Chase recommends separating the ‘high customer contact’ and ‘low customer contact’ elements of the service system because of the different operations involved. Low customer contact operations are more efficient and, as a result, have lower costs and it makes sense to isolate them from the disruptive effects of customer interactions if it can be done without sacrificing service effectiveness. However, service effectiveness is exactly what Seddon believes has been lost in many of the cases he cites. Continue reading

27 – Risk farming or good governance? How some executives avoid accountability.

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          400 words

What do I mean by ‘risk farming’? It is the practice of spreading risk around so that your responsibilities become so diffused amongst various individuals and groups that you can’t be held accountable for them. There will always be someone else sharing accountability. So, how is it done?

You start by taking every matter before the Executive. Continue reading

25 – Budgeting in local government. Is it capex, opex or a new initiative?

It is budget time again. In conjunction with ‘planning time’ (see posts 11 and 12) councils are starting to compile their proposed budgets for 2015/16. Capital bids are being evaluated to determine ‘logistically’ whether they can be completed within the financial year and ‘strategically’ whether or not they should proceed. Recurrent budgets are being submitted by managers, either built from a zero base or simply last year’s budget with the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increase. Councils will be comparing the amounts requested with the estimates in the long term financial plan to see whether they match. So where is the problem?

What if you have had growth in demands for services? Service levels may have to be increased in response to community needs. More services may be needed to cater for population growth. What if you have had significant increase in the number of assets to be maintained and renewed? More parks, more roads, more buildings. Somewhere in between the funding available for capital and recurrent budgets sits the ‘new initiative’ (NI) funding that is set aside for budget or staff increases in the recurrent budget. Councils know that costs can increase by more than CPI. They just don’t cope with it very well.

For starters, the amount available for NI’s is usually inadequate and is over bid by the organisation.  It is not unusual for $1 million to be available and for bids to add up to $3 million or more. When this happens there are often no predetermined criteria for prioritising amongst the bids. The orderliness of the budget process then comes under pressure. When criteria are developed, they struggle to effectively assign priorities. How do you decide whether expenditure to mitigate risks or increase compliance is more important than making efficiency or performance improvements to existing services? What about investment in developing new and better services now and for the future?

As you can imagine, local government will tend to eliminate risk. So the first category of NI’s are usually funded. Councils also like to satisfy the community, so improvements to services the community says are important but performing below expectations, will also be funded if at all possible. The last priority to be funded, unless there is a political imperative, is new and better services. This correlates with one of Christopher Stone’s findings in his report False Economies – unpacking public sector efficiency, that ‘two significant barriers to public sector innovation are an overly risk averse orientation within organisations, and a lack of resources invested in developing and implementing innovative ideas’. The whole process is hardly a sure-fire way to ensure that the available financial resources are allocated in the way that best meets community needs now or in the future.

Part of the solution lies in a better planning process that actively considers the relative benefits from investment in risk reduction, service improvement or new services. In a business balancing these considerations is essential. Owners and managers must ensure that there is sufficient investment in compliance, and satisfying customer needs, and developing new services for the future. Why not local government?

Posted by Whistler

Stone, Christopher, 2014. ‘False Economies – unpacking public sector efficiency’.

14 – What can a culture survey, an organisational self assessment, and your Executive’s risk appetite tell you?

In local government, we like to survey our culture and develop plans to move from the current culture to the preferred culture. It is a very idealistic exercise. In Human Synergistics’ terms, the target culture is often highly constructive and devoid of the competitive and avoidance behaviours currently evident. Typically, the culture of a council in Australia will operate on the basis of ‘keep your head down and fly under the radar, if things go wrong blame someone else, and if there is no one to blame say you were just following instructions’. In a more competitive culture it starts with blame.

An organisational self assessment (the starting point for using the Australian Business Excellence Framework) will probably reveal an organisation where the drivers for the activities of the organisation that fare the best during the assessment will be those that have a legislative compulsion behind them or that have been developed in response to a problem that has a significant consequence for failure.   The focus will be on compliance, not organisational strategy, innovation and customer or community value. This is understandable because councils do have lots of legislated responsibilities and accountabilities that have consequences for non compliance.

Now to the last and, I think, the most interesting piece of evidence – the risk appetite of top management (the Executive). This is interesting because it often isn’t documented and when it is, the context is usually the preparation of a risk management plan and the knowledge isn’t used to reflect on the decision making of the Executive, the organisation they have created, or its culture.   Leaders shape the organisation through what they say and do. If they have a low appetite for risk, especially in a sector that is inherently risk averse, this will be reflected in their decision making. What can you expect to see as a result?

  • A conventional organisational structure that emphasises functional accountability and avoids the risks associated with a focus on cross-functional processes.
  • Organisational systems that are controlling to reduce risk and increase compliance because there is no reward, and potential sanctions, for doing otherwise.  The Executive makes the decisions and policies in accordance with their risk appetite.
  • A culture where people avoid risk and don’t make decisions or just follow the rules rather than take risks to ensure that value is created.

So, if you are wondering why you work in an organisation where there are dozens of forms that need countersigning by each level of authority, where decisions are increasingly being made by the Executive, and your culture surveys keep telling you that you are big on avoidance, maybe you should enquire about your Executive’s risk appetite.

Posted by Whistler