A to D


Setting and controlling budgets is a key management activity in local government. Mostly, council budgeting focuses on the past and has difficulty coping with improvement and innovation. There is an argument that budgeting needs to be more flexible and balance investment in activities that manage risk and compliance, with investment for better customer services. Christopher Stone’s work on public sector efficiency highlights some of the opportunities open to councils.

The completion of the capital works program has become a key performance indicator across local government. Capital expenditure targets are set and there are creative ways to achieve them, or at least appear to have achieved them. This is another example of councils wanting something that they have limited ability to produce but then acting as though they have produced it any way.

In a revealing piece, Tim Whistler discusses councils and their likelihood to be doing something if it is ‘easy and there is a budget for it’, and conversely, to not be doing something if it is difficult or there is no budget. Make sense?

Classic papers

Over the years, many thoughtful articles have been written that should be influencing local government management. Peter F. Drucker’s thoughts on managing public services from 1973 are discussed in the context of local government today. His suggestion that the public service should not become more ‘businesslike’ is shared by Henry Mintzberg in his paper on managing government and governing management. Instead, a local government management model is needed.

A more recent classic paper by John Seddon won the first Harvard Business Review/ McKinsey Management Innovation Prize for Reinventing Leadership. ‘Forget your people – real leaders act on the system’, as the title suggests is a provocative paper. In his usual way, Seddon provides challenging ideas supported by practical evidence.

Cost shifting

Some State government services are required to be delivered by local government. This is often identified as ‘cost shifting’, implying that the State is forcing local government to do something that it should be doing itself. The question is whether or not this is the best way to look at the matter when council rates are a highly efficient way to tax people to pay for services they consume.


Have you ever wondered how councillors feel about their role?  Do they feel inundated and manipulated or respected and influential? The difficulties they face as volunteers, in becoming skilled in their role, learning to work together in an adversarial system, and then coping with demanding workloads, are an ever-present challenge for them and council administrations.

Foreshadowed council decisions sometimes seem unassailable to community members. There are ways to influence a pending council decision. Here are some tips .

Councillors regularly push the boundaries of appropriate behaviour in dealing with the council organisation. When this happens, who should ‘push back’ and why?


In every council, it is essential to learn ‘the way we do things around here’. Institutionalised behaviour is the most compelling influence on performance. Some emerging characteristics of people and councils are discussed – obligatory empiricism, oblivious narcissism, and consensual lying. These are put forward as reasons why councils always seem to learn everything from scratch, leaders set out to meet their own needs first, and why people tell others what they want to hear for the sake of convenience.

It is said that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. What are the changes that have impacted in Victorian local government since the 1990’s? Part history lesson and part explanation of the forces that have shaped present day local government, the conclusion is that the most influential change has been to the tenure of the CEO and their increased dependence on the goodwill of their council for survival.

Why do councils stick with conventional organisational structures and avoid dealing with cross-functional processes? Why do systems seek to control risk and increase compliance without regard for producing public value? Why does council culture encourage people to avoid making decisions? What can an organisational culture survey, an ABEF organisational self-assessment, and the Executive’s risk appetite can reveal about these matters?

Ambition and local government don’t always mix. There are difficulties ahead for the ambitious and those who don’t fit into the dominant culture and comply with senior management’s wishes. The parable of the three stonemasons is linked to organisational culture surveys, the actions of the Executive, and the desire for compliant behaviour, not performance.

It is often the organisational language that provides the greatest insight into culture. Ten sayings that define local government culture are discussed and interpreted. What does it really mean to set an ‘aspirational’ goal, do some ‘blue sky’ thinking, or ‘park’ it?

Middle management in local government makes the whole system work by buffering the dysfunctions that would otherwise disrupt everyone’s work continuously. Why is it that risk and workload is shifted to middle managers continuously, particularly by making them sign-off on everything?

Customer experience

Customer experience is an important concept for any service organisation. Local government is no exception. Using two articles from Harvard Business Review, Colin Weatherby discusses how every aspect of an organisation’s offering, every touch point with the organisation, contributes to the customer experience.

Customer service

Customer service in local government can be complex. Understanding the differences between customers, clients, citizens, residents and ratepayers, and the importance of identifying the role someone has chosen to take in an interaction, is essential in determining the value they expect. This thinking can be useful in differentiating between public and private value expectations.

The work of Richard B. Chase in the 1970’s and thereafter as a proponent of separating front and back office activities is discussed. While John Seddon sees this separation as a major part of the problem with public services today, it could be an idea badly applied rather than a bad idea. All of us have worked in systems where they are separated and it is sometimes appreciated.

Do you know how to ensure that the voice of the customer’ is heard loud and clear at your council? Some practical suggestions from Peter R. Scholtes and ‘Lean thinking’ are described to help ensure that the customer is able to influence the organisation. Do you know how your customers compare the value you offer or whether they are getting something they don’t need when they receive your services?

A recent article on the use of social media by disgruntled customers discussed the implications for customer service. This is a trend presenting challenges for councils to improve service delivery and broaden customer service channels. Vive la révolution informatique!

Is every ‘saving’ made by internal service providers an actual saving (i.e. the same value is produced at less cost)? Or, are they simply moving effort and costs to operational areas? If they are, it is sometimes at greater net cost to the council, as discussed by Colin Weatherby. In a similar vein, Tim Whistler asks ‘what if we treated the community the way we treat internal customers?’ Good question. His imaginary conversation with a ratepayer receiving the ‘benefits’ of council cost saving is revealing.

Customers in local government are sometimes described as being ‘captive’, i.e. they have no choice in service provider. Colin Weatherby discuses why this makes them special and why service design should seek to meet their needs carefully through service visibility; ensuring they get what they need; and encouraging ‘loyalty’ by creating favourable attitudes to the council. Read it and see if you agree.

In a related piece, Colin Weatherby discusses customer perception and its importance in local government. Using a gap analysis tool borrowed from Operations Management thinking he discusses the idea that customer expectations in relation to service value, and the organisations ability to understand and deliver on them, are critical.

Decision making

The organisational Executive is the key leadership and decision-making group.  In local government they have an influential role to play. But are they? What do they do to add value?  Tim Whistler recounts a story about the Executive of a council deliberating over the annual budget.

Councils have several roles to play – government, board, regulator. What hats might councillors wear to signal the capacity in which they are acting when they make decisions, or the type of decision they are making? Hats have long been both a fashion statement and a symbol of status or role in society.  Have a read and see what you think. In a similar vein, what hats might middle managers wear for similar reasons?

In 2015 Melbourne City Council appointed a ‘People’s Panel’ to make recommendations on their budget for the next 5 years.  It is the latest version of participatory budgeting and potentially a harbinger of things to come for major council decisions.

Is a decision strategic? There is a lot of talk about being strategic in local government. The article ‘How to Tell which Decisions are Strategic’ by Ram Shivakumar provides a matrix connecting decisions to their impact on ‘degree of commitment’ and ‘scope of the firm’.  The role of functional organisation structure in impeding collaborative decision making, and the involvement of the Executive in re-managing, is discussed in the context of benefits available from a greater focus on cross-functional processes.

Foreshadowed council decisions sometimes seem unassailable to community members. There are ways to influence a pending council decision. Here are some tips .

In a series of posts based on articles from the January 2006 Harvard Business Review some of the weaknesses in local government decision making are discussed and improvements proposed. The focus is on the need to make more decisions faster and better. The RAPID decision making process is evaluated for use by councils; problems in centralised decision making and ensuring cross-functional decision making; the importance of policy support for decision making; the effect of annual planning and business unit by business unit planning; the problems of indecision in local government and ways to overcome it; the link between strategic planning and business plans ; and how ‘social operating mechanisms’ can support candid debate and decision making. Wow.

In a revealing piece, Tim Whistler discusses councils and their likelihood to be doing something if it is ‘easy and there is a budget for it’, and conversely, to not be doing something if it is difficult or there is no budget. Make sense?

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