213 – What insight does the capability review of one council and the sacking of another give you into local government culture in Victoria?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         1500 words

insight light

Two interesting reports have been published in Victoria in the last 12 months – the Organisational Capability Review of Melbourne City Council in May 2015 and the more recent Commission of Inquiry Report into Greater Geelong City Council, released in March 2016. Each report provides an insight into local government culture.

As someone who has worked at three Victorian councils in the last 10 years, and who corresponds regularly with people working at another half a dozen councils, the insight is not surprising.  It reveals a deep malaise in the sector that has root causes in the political system, the ways our leaders are appointed, and general organisational leadership capability.

To begin, what are the discoveries in these two reviews of major Victorian councils? 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

92 – Strategy execution – why do we make it so hard in local government?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                                          570 words

laurel and hardy

Lancing Farrell’s posts have been interesting. Some good connections have been made with the research conducted by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes and Charles Sull. I am sure that evidence of each of the myths would be available for local government, but are they the only reasons strategy failure is common?

There is no doubt that lack of cross-functional cooperation, sticking to infeasible plans, under-resourcing plans, ineffective communication, and disempowerment of the distributed leaders by top management are widespread. There is no doubt that they all contribute to failure to implement strategy in local government. But are these the only factors?

I think that failure begins with lack of clear strategy to implement. Continue reading

44 – The Executive. What exactly is its role?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         700 words

This seems to be a common question. You frequently hear people saying, ‘that decision will need to go to the Executive’, or ‘don’t do that until you have been to Exec’. If asked, the people saying this often can’t say why they have offered this advice and reviewing the terms of reference for the Executive will usually reveal that it is not a decision making body. It is individual members who have the authority to make decisions. So, what is its role? Continue reading

20 – Plan, promise or accountability tool. What role does your Council Plan play?

I am always interested in documents called ‘plan’. Add ‘strategic’ and you really have my attention. I suppose it all depends on definition of a plan. Here are a few of my thoughts to add to the posts on planning by Lancing Farrell (posts 11 and 12).

I take a plan to mean a document containing your intended actions to achieve an outcome. If circumstances change, the plan will need to change accordingly. It is a mechanism for a group of people to come to a common understanding of what they are going to do and it helps communicate that to others. It guides decision making and the allocation of resources. It is a reference when you need to confirm the direction you want to go in. You probably have your own definition.

In local government, however, plans tend to take on other roles. They become public promises about actions to be taken and the objectives that will be achieved. It is the yardstick to measure the performance of the Council and the organisation and hold them accountable – have they kept their promises? Politicians keeping their promises has become a bit of an obsession in Australia. The Council Plan is the main document that fulfils that purpose in Victorian local government.

Actions from the Council Plan ‘cascade’ into department work plans and the performance plans of individuals, who are then measured on how well they achieve them. Accountability for delivering the plan – implementing the actions and producing the outputs – is then embedded. But what if circumstances change?   What if the plan you started with is no longer a good one? It does happen. As Keynes is reported to have said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Unfortunately, in local government, changing your mind about your plan is often seen as breaking promises or avoiding accountability.

This is a simplistic view of the world. Sometimes the plan needs to change in order for the same outcomes to be achieved. When the outcomes start to change all the time without a process to ensure it is what the community wants, it probably is an accountability problem. I have observed councils sticking to plans and implementing actions that everyone knows are no longer relevant, but they continue to be implemented because ‘we said that we would’. Often this happens because lead time to get an action into the plan has made it obsolete or another more relevant opportunity for action has emerged.

The emergence of a new and better way to achieve the same outcome can be the most difficult to deal with. The Council Plan is not readily amended and the amendment process is public, which opens the door to accusations of breaking promises. It is difficult for a council to take risks in producing value for the community if those risks are to be embodied in the Council Plan. There is usually a process to double check on the ‘doability’ of any actions proposed for the Council Plan – unless we are sure we can do it, it often doesn’t get included. Imagine a business only planning to do the things that it already knows it can do.

The risk is that the plan becomes a controlling document full of risk-free and relatively easily achieved actions.

Is there a solution? The flexibility of a plan to effectively guide action in achieving outcomes must be balanced against the public demand for accountability from their elected representatives and the council. The planning structure and the process to develop and review plans is probably the key. At the moment a lot rides on the Council Plan. In the absence of lesser organisational plans that capture actions and accountabilities of the organisation, they are being incorporated into the City Plan, which is essentially the plan made by the councillors for their term in office. As such, it necessarily has a political focus.

A better planning process, which is possible within the legislated planning framework, would seem to be the answer.

Colin Weatherby