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. Both threats and opportunities are present.

The notion of local government needing a new operating system is both novel and creative in making the case for change. It is an analogy that we all now understand in this technological age. Operating systems need to be updated regularly or your system becomes obsolete. In fact, Goldsmith and Kleiman spend a lot of time discussing the origins of the current local government operating system in response to patronage, nepotism, incompetence and corruption. They conclude that today the system, that has served the community well for 100 years, is typified by fragmentation and silos, risk aversion, and employees working to rule.

“Absent an outcome-based orientation, city departments now promote fidelity to work rules and risk avoidance over measurable accomplishment.”

Changes in society have accelerated the need to change the local government operating system. Goldsmith has previously used the term ‘retail government ‘ to describe government services that put the citizen first in providing responsive and timely service. He has now added the ‘Amazoning’ of services to describe personalised web pages that could be available to each citizen when dealing with their local government. I am sure you get the idea – he believes people want government services to be more like the services they experience in other parts of their life and governments are simply not keeping up.

“A new O/S for local government leverages modern technologies by designing responses around the citizen and the employee that allows government to act in time.”

Goldsmith and Kleiman describe a ‘pivot’ for the new operating system. Essentially, it involves a change from a ‘closed’, command and control, centralised service producer with a strong focus on compliance, to an ‘open’ organisation that collaborates, empowers, and puts solving citizen problems first.

The new operating system pivots local government (from Goldsmith and Kleiman, 2017)

a new os pivot table

It was interesting to read this book while self-isolating at home and working remotely to deliver core operational services. I was learning to use video-conferencing, remotely access corporate data sources, and hold people accountable without seeing them or their work. It forced me and my colleagues to get close to the work, focus on data about demands, and to trust that staff were doing their work safely and well. Changes in work practices that were actively resisted before the Coronavirus were now quickly becoming commonplace.

Goldsmith and Kleiman provide a detailed analysis of the many local government attempts to improve services through what they call ‘project innovations’. It includes innovations like external performance reporting, citizen response apps, open data, big data, smart cities, nudge, participatory budgeting, social impact bonds. Their discussion is worth reading, as are the innovations documented at The Ash Center.  It is clear that local government needs an impetus for change. Perhaps we now have it.

I will close with a brief overview of how Goldsmith and Kleiman see a new operating system fitting in. They position it as enabling a new government model of distributed governance, in which the council is part of a distributed network of service providers (i.e. residents, contractors, community groups, local institutions, not-for-profit and for-profit organisations). Distributed governance and the new O/S go hand in hand as shown below.

Elements of distributed governance (from Goldsmith and Kleiman, 2017)

a new os distributed governance

The book goes into a detailed explanation of distributed governance and the new operating system. For some councils, this would be a big change. For others it would be an intensification of alliance networks that already exist to draw on different skills, access different groups within the community, and optimise use of resources to provide services to people in their community. In a more resource-constrained world, with citizen expectations of service unchanged, local government will have to be creative.

Perhaps a new O/S is what we need in a post-Coronavirus world.

228 – Frog or bike. Does it matter?

1720 words (6 minutes reading time)                                                                Lancing Farrell

thinking frog

Colin Weatherby and Tim Whistler have made some interesting points in their contributions to the discussion about the Vanguard Method. Clearly, Colin’s colleague has had some success in using it and has been able to identify unique features of the Vanguard Method. In contrast, Tim has raised some legitimate concerns, especially from a local government perspective. I have spent some time thinking about both points of view and reading some of the material mentioned. Here are my thoughts for what they are worth.

Services are complex and the interactions between the parts, especially when people are involved, is important. Experience says that changing one part of a system does often have unintended consequences elsewhere. Continue reading

227 – Frogs or bikes – I’d love to see that.

600 words (3 minutes reading time)                                                                   Tim Whistler

frog on road

I read Colin Weatherby’s post on the Vanguard Method and systems thinking with some interest. There have been a number of posts on systems thinking on this blog. It is not a new idea. I am intrigued by what makes the Vanguard Method any different to other applications of systems thinking. I am also interested in how it relates to concepts like public value. How does the Vanguard Method achieve better or different results?

As previously posted, I have some interest in the Vanguard Method. I suppose, I am sceptical about the likelihood of any method being taken up in local government if it relies on ‘counter-intuitive’ truths and if there is no detailed plan to say what will be achieved and when. It is always hard to justify expenditure of public funds without a written plan with measurable outcomes – even if everyone suspects the plan is ill-founded or optimistic. If you aim for the stars, if you fail you will at least land on the moon. A plan gives you something to measure the effort against and hold people accountable. After all, isn’t public accountability the aim?

Continue reading

226 – Frog or bicycle? The Vanguard Method at work.

2250 words (8 minutes reading time)                                                   Colin Weatherby

frog on bike

Some time ago Tim Whistler wrote a brief post on the Vanguard Method in Australia. Since then I have been talking to a colleague who has been using the Vanguard Method. Their experience has highlighted aspects of the Vanguard Method that are different to other system thinking approaches. The originator of the Vanguard Method, John Seddon, has also written a new book (‘Beyond Command and Control’) that discusses some of the differences between the Vanguard Method and other popular approaches to organisational change. This is rather a long post but worth the effort to read it if you are interested in systems thinking and the Vanguard Method.

Continue reading

216 – Some further thoughts on systems thinking.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              1600 words

Rodin's The Thinker

There have been a number of posts on systems thinking examining both its theoretical underpinnings and practical application. I recently had reason to consider how systems thinking, or lack thereof, affects organisations from day to day, and the ways that systems thinking can shape or influence organisational culture.

This was prompted by an article by Brian Martens on ‘the impact of leadership in applying systems thinking to organisations’. It is a thoughtful explanation of his research and thinking.

“Systems thinking is a natural way to look at the world and all the relationships and interconnections that are involved in its functioning.”

I think it is the only way to think about leadership or management in councils because connections matter so much in delivering services that meet the expectations of recipients and because resources are scarce and must be shared whenever possible. Continue reading

203 – ‘Systems Thinking for Social Change’ by David Peter Stroh.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                                         950 words

systems thinking for social chnage

The subtitle of this book says it all – ‘A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results’.   Every so often you pick up a book and it provides answers to problems that you and thousands of others grapple with every day. This is one of those books.   David Stroh co-founded ‘Innovation Associates’ with Peter Senge, who later wrote the management classic ‘The Fifth Discipline’. Both are proponents of systems thinking. The premise of this book is that ‘applying systems thinking principles and tools enables you to achieve better results with fewer resources in more lasting ways’. Wow.

Stroh uses detailed, real-world examples to make his case. His ‘systems stories’ explain how people can improve performance by shifting from just trying to optimise their part of the system, to improving the relationships between all parts of the system.   The systems stories start with seeing the big picture.

It is often the case in local government that people focus mainly on their functional responsibilities and either fail to see connections to the work of others, or they are not interested. Life is simpler when achievable goals can be set and complexity is overlooked. Putting the effort in to understanding the whole system is seldom rewarded. Local government is epitomised by sayings like ‘keep it simple’, ‘look for quick wins’, and ‘pick the low hanging fruit’.

In contrast, Stroh uses the ancient Indian story of the blind men and the elephant to illustrate the importance of the big picture. Continue reading

191 – Essay No. 3 – Local government and systems thinking.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              1250 words

 

systems thinking checkland

Systems Model, Peter Checkland, 1981.

Systems thinking has featured in a number of posts (see  Some types of thinking observed in local government,  Classic paper: ‘Forget your people – real leaders act on the system’. John SeddonApplying the public value concept using systems thinking in local government). As someone with an interest in systems thinking I felt it deserved some discussion in the context of local government using ideas gathered from Peter Checkland, Alistair Mant and John Seddon.

The cover of Peter Checkland’s book ‘Systems Thinking, Systems Practice’ says that it is about the ‘interaction between theory and practice of problem solving methodology’, as derived from a decade of action research. It is a seminal text on the ‘meta-discipline’ of systems thinking.

Checkland has set out to ‘develop an explicit account of the systems outlook’ and, based on that view, to ‘develop ways of using systems ideas in practical problem situations’. The book is about the ‘use of a particular set of ideas, systems ideas, in trying to understand the world’s complexity’.

“The central concept ‘system’ embodies the idea of a set of elements connected together which form a whole, this showing properties which are properties of the whole, rather than properties of its component parts.”

Systems thinking is centred on the concept of ‘wholeness’. In some ways it is a reaction to the classical scientific method, which emphasises ‘reducing the situation observed in order to increase the chance that experimentally reproducible observations will be obtained’.   Eliminating variables in order to study something to determine cause and effect is useful but ultimately limiting in complex systems where the interactions of all variables matters.

Systems thinkers have called it ‘organised complexity’ to describe the space between ‘organised simplicity’ and ‘chaotic complexity’. In some ways it is seeking to understand the simplicity that exists on the far side of complexity. In a nutshell, systems thinking is concerned with organisation and the principles underlying the existence of any whole entity.

Australian management author, Alistair Mant, describes two types of systems in his book ‘Intelligent Leadership’. He calls them the ‘frog’ and the ‘bicycle’ systems and he believes that leaders need to be able to distinguish between the two systems when applying systems thinking and directing a change and shift in systems. He sees ‘pointing systems in intelligent directions’ as one of the critical leadership responsibilities.

Frogs and bicycles are metaphors for different kinds of systems. The essential difference lies in the relationship of the parts to the whole. A bicycle can be completely disassembled and then reassembled with confidence that it will work as well as before.  This is not possible with a frog. Once you remove a single part the whole system is affected instantaneously and unpredictably. Furthermore, as you continue to remove parts the frog will make a ‘series of subtle, but still unpredictable, adjustments in order to survive’.

“This sort of system, at a level beneath consciousness, wants to survive and will continue for an astonishing length of time to achieve a rough equilibrium as bits are excised – until it can do so no longer. At that point, again quite unpredictably, the whole system will tip over into collapse. The frog is dead and it won’t help to sew the parts back on.”

This is a salient warning for those planning to intervene in a system without due care. Mant believes that most big organisational systems contain bits of frog and bicycle systems.   He says that the bicycle parts can be hived off and reattached in a new way without harming the overall system, but that the frog parts are really the core process.   In a way, he is describing systems at two different levels – the component-level (bicycle) and the system-level (frog).

Checkland says that ‘any system which serves another cannot be modelled until a definition and model of the system served is available’. This approach should prevent action on component ‘bicycle’ systems occurring before the potential implications for the whole ‘frog’ system is understood.

In common with Checkland, Mant holds the view that systems are complex and need to be considered as a whole. The systems model developed by Checkland (shown above) illustrates the process of systems thinking. He says that it starts with a ‘focus of interest’ or set of concerns that exist in the real world. This could be a problem or something about which we have aspirations. This leads to an idea. From that idea two kinds of theory can be formulated:

  1. Substantive – theories about the subject matter.
  2. Methodological – theories about how to go about investigating the subject matter.

Once theories exist, it is possible to state problems not only as they exist in the real world, but also as ‘problems within a discipline’. For example, engineering, chemistry or town planning. All of the resources of the discipline (i.e. previous problems, its paradigms, models and techniques) can then be used in an appropriate methodology to test the theory.

The results of this test, which involves action in the real world (i.e. interventions, influencing and observation), then provides case records of ‘happenings under certain conditions’.   These are the crucial source of criticisms that enable better theories, models, techniques and methodologies to be developed. It is the improvement loop.

For those proponents of the Vanguard Method this might be starting to sound familiar. John Seddon has developed an application of systems thinking in organisations that has demonstrated its value in improving organisational systems. The Vanguard Method has the following steps:

  1. Check
  • What is the purpose of this system?
  • What are the types and frequencies of customer demand?
  • How well does the system respond to demand?
  • What is the ‘flow’ of work?
  • What are the conditions that make the system behave this way?
  1. Plan
  • What needs changing to improve performance?
  • What action could be taken and what would we predict the consequences to be?
  • Against what measures should action be taken?
  1. Do
  • Take the planned action and monitor the consequence in relation to the purpose.

It features systems thinking in the need to understand a concern in the real world (what are the demands?), develop a theory or approach to improvement (what needs to change?), and then seeks to implement that action and monitor consequences (how can the approach be improved?).

“The outcome of studying the work in this way is a system picture that puts together everything that has been learned and which illustrates the dynamics of the particular service.” John Seddon.

Mant says that most complex systems containing and serving people have ‘natural properties’. Effective management aligns itself with the natural flows and processes to help them along – like a leaf floating on water running in a stream that naturally takes it to its destination. Bad or dogmatic management fails to recognise these natural properties and attempts to ‘shoehorn the system into shape’ to meet externally determined priorities. This has been identified as a problem for public sector management in a previous long read post.

Local government has spent too long looking out of the window hoping to see a ’business-like’ way of managing that will solve all of its problems, rather than having the confidence to work out what is needed from first principles. It is vulnerable to the next externally imposed management fad.

Seddon is particularly harsh in his judgement of public service reform for the past 35 years in Britain. He describes the contribution of each Prime Minister in some detail. Overall, he paints a picture of political interference and the projection of a narrative that has primarily focussed on reducing costs, yet costs have increased. This is principally because they have failed to understand the system. The complexity of systems containing and serving people has been overlooked.

Checkland, Peter, 1981. ‘Systems Thinking, Systems Practice’.

Mant, Alistair, 1997. ‘Intelligent Leadership’.

Seddon, John, 2014. ‘The Whitehall Effect’.