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?

It is also less risk to simply do the same thing that others are already doing and seek to improve using a conventional business transformation approach. There are many change management approaches and most organisations would have several already in use – Kotter, Lean, digital transformation, customer-centred design, Agile, organisational restructuring, etc. Couldn’t these all be bundled up and coordinated through a ‘systems thinking’ approach? Why should a council try to do something different? Play it safe, I say.

I am also concerned that if it is the customer who decides what the ‘problem’ is to be solved (which then defines the ‘system’ to be improved) and what matters about how it is solved, how does that constitute public value? Isn’t it simply a version of private value? A transaction about what each individual customer wants? What about the interests of others who may use that service in the future or who don’t use the service at all but contribute to paying for it? How are their views considered? I would like to see how the Vanguard Method impacts annual planning and the development of the council’s mandatory annual and long-term plans.

The idea that measurement of performance will assist staff to do their work better and deliver more value to customers is fine. I would have thought that should be happening already. But what about the performance reporting required by senior management? How do they have visibility of the resources being used to do the work and whether it is being done to the required standards? What about State government reporting requirements? People in the community need to know how their council measures up against other councils in delivering services. How else will they know they are getting value for their money?

My other concern is that improving customer-defined systems doesn’t solve the problem of what to do in the future to accommodate new customer demands. How do you plan for the future of your services when the system is being determined by the customers of today? They may not reflect the values, needs and aspirations of the next generation of customers. Plus, many councils are now developing service catalogues to describe the services they offer and define the service levels – how does that thinking fit into the Vanguard Method?

What happens to the role of leaders? If they are not there to set budgets, allocate EFT, make the big decisions and tell the frontline workers what to do and how to do it, what are they there for? How will they justify their positions in the hierarchy and be held accountable for the work being done? What if budgets are exceeded because more resources are needed to ‘solve’ customer problems than they have expected? What if fulfilling ‘customer purpose’ requires more EFT that they have allocated? It sounds to me like there is a risk that systems thinmking will allow the system to spiral out of control.

Isn’t management about having the skills to take the system apart, fix the bits, and then put it back together? Isn’t that why we have HR and finance and IT? Their leaders are specialists and they know what needs to be done in their area. What about the engineers, librarians, and social workers? They lead their functions with expertise and industry knowledge. They know industry best practice and aim to excel in their work. I fail to understand why everyone doing their best in their area isn’t the right way to deliver best value to customers.

I know this might just seem like an endless list of questions but I think they should have answers.

215 – From the Archive: Creative ways to make your capital expenditure target. Some ideas.

Posted by Whistler                                                                          570 words

capital expenditure graph

Originally posted 20 April 2015

Yes, it is that time of the year when our engineers and accountants become highly creative.   By June 30 they will need to explain whether or not the targeted amount of capital works has been completed. Often the target is expressed as simply as ‘90% capital program completed’. Usually it is a KPI for the CEO and senior managers. That makes it an important target.

So, why the need for such high levels of creativity?

Delivering 90% of the planned capital works is harder than it sounds. Many councils would have averaged around 60% to 70% over the last ten years. This is partially explained by growth in capital expenditure that has exceeded the organisational capacity to deliver. Another part of the explanation is that capital works programs have become more diverse with more people participating in the planning and delivery across the council. As a result, projects have become more complex and people with inadequate project management skills are often involved.   Finally, councillors have become much more involved and the capital works program will now have projects that councillors, sometimes in response to community submissions to the budget process, have included – often at the last minute.

As the capital works program has grown, become more complex, involved more people with less skills, and started to include projects without adequate pre-planning or feasibility analysis, especially if they require community engagement, it has become much more difficult to deliver the whole program. But the target remains.

This is where the creativity occurs. Continue reading

214 – Worried about pretend managing? More importantly, are you dealing with real or imagined work?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                                          300 words

imagined work

Colin Weatherby has made some interesting points in writing about pretend managing. A colleague recently reminded me of another important idea – there are two kinds of work in any workplace: the imagined and the real.

He was discussing his work in injury prevention in the workplace. In his interactions with injured workers and their managers he has observed that there are two types of work. The imagined work exists in the minds of the managers making decisions about what and how workers will do their work.

When discussing worker’s injuries with managers, the managers frequently describe their understanding of the work and how it happens. This is imaginary work because usually they have not done the work. Some have not even studied the work. They are in charge of the work being performed and believe they know what is going on.

In comparison, the real work is what injured workers describe. It is how they actually do the work. It includes the short cuts and workarounds that are not in any Safe Work Method Statements. It is what they know from doing the work every day.

It is important for managers to know that there are two types of work and that there is a difference.

If managers operate as though their understanding of work is accurate and complete they will make mistakes. And, according to my colleague, workers will continue to be injured. Recognising that there is real work, and that it is important to understand exactly how it operates, is essential. Organisations need ways for the two types of work to come together. The Service Action Plans described in an earlier post is one way for this to happen.

There is no doubt that pretend managers are a problem. But a pretend manager dealing with imagined work is potentially a much bigger one.

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

199 – Missed the quiz? Don’t worry, here are the answers (apologies to John Clarke).

Posted by Whistler                                                                                                          680 words

john clarke

Mr John Clarke

There was a huge response to the ‘Giant Local Government Utopia Quiz’. Not unexpectedly, the winner was Gordon Brittas, star of the Brittas Empire (a 1980’s documentary series about local government). For the record, here are the answers:

  1. True. Public servants have an implied constitutional right to express private political opinions but the opinions mustn’t be expressed to anyone else. This is because it is widely acknowledged that allowing public servants to contribute to public discourse could undermine the infeasibility of political decisions and confuse people with logic.
  2. False. TotalPave is not a municipal engineering project to cover the world’s surface with concrete with 1% fall. It is the innovative idea of some college students in the U.S. that we will studiously ignore in Australia. Well done.
  3. False. The ‘Women of Bologna’ is not a new municipal sitcom showing on Netflix. No, women in Bologna have joined forces to work with local government and care for public infrastructure, forcing the creation of the innovative and precisely worded ‘The Regulation on Collaboration Between Citizens and the Administration for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons’. Citizens are now helping their cash-strapped council instead of strapping their council for cash. Amazing really.
  4. False. Public value, best value, value for money and value-adding are all related ideas that your council may talk about but it will have no real idea how to make happen. These terms are often heard in conjunction with innovation, efficiency and cost saving – more ideas that councils have very little idea about.
  5. False. Despite occasional conjecture to the opposite, John Seddon and Mark H. Moore have pretty much wasted their time since the last century writing about the problems with current public sector management and proposing alternatives. Never mind, there is always next century.
  6. False. Slacktivism is rife in local government. It is becoming an epidemic. Anyway, it beats face to face engagement or any other form of engagement that requires effort and for people to be accountable for their views.
  7. True. There are no followers in local government, only leaders. Everyone is a leader. Many of those leaders are highly innovative and do not conform to traditional leadership practice, which dictates that when something goes well the team is given credit and when it goes badly the leader takes the blame.   It is one area where local government leads.
  8. True. Local government rate capping is not the equivalent of knee capping, window capping or introducing a new player into the Australian cricket team. It is an attempt to stop the most accessible and responsive level of government from being accessible and responsive when inaccessible and unresponsive levels of government have successfully been inaccessible and unresponsive. Well done again.
  9. False. Because councils are asking families to obtain permission to use public parks and then charging a fee for a permit, does not mean that councils believe people are not smart enough or don’t have sufficient wit to work it out how to share a park themselves. No. It is simply saying that councils reckon they are so much better at working these things out. In fact, all governments are. Letting people make decisions and sort matters out for themselves has led to conflict all over the world. Government intervention is the answer.
  10. False. The Strategic Triangle is not the local government equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle, where people and ideas are mysteriously lost without trace. It is a simple to understand and even easier to ignore idea about the fundamental relationship between politicians, public administration and the community in the use of authority to create services that the community finds valuable. Never mind.
  11. False. Wanksy is an internationally celebrated artist whose ephemeral and inspirational works are quickly obliterated by councils in accordance with their road management plans. Like his namesake Banksy, his work has challenged public policy and the way councils respond to illegal artworks. I say bring on more asphalt.
  12. False. This quiz was not intended to highlight the systematic failure of local governments to think about what they do and take heed of information and thinking that is freely available. It is simply a bit of fun.

197 – Blogging – some introspection and reflection.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              550 words

blogging for learning

It has been an interesting 12 months of blogging. Many things have been learnt. What started out as an opportunity to get a few things out of heads and onto ‘paper’ has turned into a tremendous professional development process. The ideas being written about have generated a response that has informed practice.

So, what has been learnt?

The objective was to use the posts to tell a story, say what it really means or reveals, and then what could/should be done to make a difference. Some posts have been a bit darker and tended to show how ideas are progressively compromised or eroded until they are ineffective or counterproductive. Some posts have been persuasive in support of an opinion or course of action. Hopefully all have been entertaining and/or informative.

Readers’ interest in different topics has been evident though the number of views of each post (hence the ‘Most Popular Posts’ page). There were over 6000 views for the year. The ‘likes’ show which posts have particularly appealed to readers. ‘Comments’ indicate further interest and have led to posts being written in response to matters raised. The growth in ‘Followers’ indicates general interest in the ideas being posted. Overall, it has been a satisfying response and it has encouraged writing.

It has been surprising that readers have come from such a large number of countries (113 and counting). The majority are from English speaking countries with a similar system of local government (i.e. Australia, USA, UK and Canada).

The posts have changed over the course of the year in response to feedback. Images have been added, questions have been posed, there have been several series on a topic, and there have been the long reads. The idea has been to engage with the readership in different ways.

Multiple viewpoints have been presented – explanatory, teaching, positive critique, negative critique, the voice of reason – sometimes on the same topic. This has created a certain tension but has hopefully ‘rounded out’ thinking on the topic.

After the first 25 posts an ‘index post’ was created to briefly discuss each post and then to describe the various themes covered in the posts. Later a ‘syntopicon’ was created covering all posts to allow new readers to quickly find posts on different themes. Hopefully it has been useful.

The ideas for posts have come from daily work interactions, colleagues in networks, blog ‘supporters’ providing comments and feedback, newspapers, newsletters, other blogs – anywhere. The intention has been to link theory with practice from the viewpoint of middle managers.

The lack of interest in reading across the sector, especially top management, has limited posts (mostly) to 500 to 1000 words with the ‘long reads’ (2000 to 4000 words) for those with the fortitude for a deeper discussion of a topic. Posts discussing books of relevance have been popular and links to articles are often used. Some people are up for a good read.

The limit of 200 posts has been set to avoid blogging for the sake of blogging or becoming involved in the egotistical and delusional blogging evident on some sites where the author had something to say but after a while they seem to have just started writing to maintain their following.

There is only so much of your introspection and reflection that you can impose on the rest of the world.

186 – Essay No. 1 – Local government and accountability.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              2000 words

rabbit in headlights

This is the first in a series of essays to wrap up the 200 opinions, essays and observations planned for Local Government Utopia. As such, it attempts to bring together some of the themes that have emerged in the various posts.

Have you ever imagined yourself to be in the office of the CEO?

You have arrived at work to be told that The Ombudsman’s office wants to talk to you about the outcome of an investigation triggered by a Whistleblower. You have a meeting at the Auditor General’s office that morning to discuss the latest report they have released on Council Customer Service. A copy of the Independent Broad-based Anti Corruption Committee (IBAC) report on Council Depot Management is in your in tray along with a complicated Freedom of Information request.

That evening you have a Risk and Audit Committee meeting where you need to explain the lack of action in implementing recommendations from the 10 internal audits completed in the previous year. A councillor has left you a phone message saying they are unhappy with a decision regarding services delivered to an elderly resident. There is an email from the local newspaper wanting comment on an expose they are running on councillor entitlements.

I am sure this is not a usual day. But it also isn’t an entirely unrealistic scenario either. There are lots of sources of accountability for local government. Often, they act on the organisation independently and there is no effort (and sometimes no opportunity) to coordinate the organisational response. As a result, sources of accountability frequently operate at cross purposes and can be counter-productive. Continue reading