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

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164 – Who should push back with the councillors? The CEO, Directors or Managers?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          600 words

chess

I think this is a good question and it is one that every manager will ask themselves at some point. It may take a bit of experience to ask it. Individual councillors regularly ask for the organisation to do things that are outside policy or they become conflicted. So who should be saying no?

In many councils there has been an organisational correction about the type of contact councillors can make with staff. Usually this happens after a councillor has attempted to influence a junior staff member to do something outside policy. When councillors complain about the staff member because they won’t do what they asked (or if the officer complains) the organisation reinforces the rule that councillors can only talk to senior officers – i.e. the CEO, Directors or Managers.

This partially solves the problem and often introduces new problems. Continue reading

142 – A question. If I was the CEO what would I do? Answer: Focus the change effort.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                            740 words

boat builder CEO

I am sure being a CEO isn’t easy. The political environment in Australia is difficult and even more so in local government where the politicians are unpaid and not supported by political parties. There are many other pressures from the external environment – i.e. changing State government legislated responsibilities and increasing oversight of council operations; contentious urban growth and renewal planning decisions; inadequate State services for transport, education and health; and changing community expectations of service. So, if it was me, what would I do?

To begin I would not let the limitations and problems of the political and external environments dominate my management of the organisation. They are both urgent and sometimes important. However, they are not easily influenced and can take all of top management’s time and energy for little return. By all means be engaged and influence where you can but my approach would be to put my effort where no one else can and where I will get the best return.

By doing this, I think there would also be an improvement in the political environment and a stronger position to tackle the external pressures.

What do I mean? I would get my house in order. I would ensure that the resources at my disposal are used to create the maximum value for the community that has provided them. My goal would be for every ratepayer and resident to love living in my municipality. They would love it so much that they would tell all of their friends about it. They would offer to pay more for the services that they or their neighbours need. Every day social media would have stories of the great experiences people have had dealing with the council and the surprisingly good value they received.

Expectations would be met for basic service and exceeded where the value is visible and appreciated. This is the value capture that Sayan Chatterjee  talks about – councils don’t want people to value the services they provide and to offer to pay more so that the council can make a profit. Councils are not in that business. Instead, councils want them to be loyal customers who enjoy the value they get from paying their taxes. That enjoyment and loyalty is the value capture.

I wouldn’t ignore the outside world but I would want to be leading an organisation that redefines community expectations and delivers outstanding value. Here is how I would do that in order.

  1. Provide a more inclusive and less autocratic management style that suits local government culture and organisations expected to work that way with their customers.
  2. Set clear strategy – who are/are not customers; what service will/will not be provided to them; and how will it be done efficiently using available resources.
  3. Improve the customer focus by putting customers first (I mean really putting them first, not just saying it) through understanding the value they expect and designing services to provide it within available resources, now and in the long-term.
  4. Create better processes to make decisions and delegate more decision making and empower staff throughout the organisation so that more decisions are made and faster.
  5. Establish greater accountability by setting expectations and measuring performance so that feedback is provided to support achievement and create a performance-orientated culture.
  6. Focus innovation on areas of the organisation where significant change is required and set up systems to so that everyone continuously improves.
  7. Simplify the complexity inherent in local government by identifying and eliminating process constraints that have developed over time.
  8. Focus on productivity by ‘unlocking’ the capacity of people and resources to ensure that the required services are being provided as efficiently as possible.

I have been told (by a CEO) that a world where ratepayers and residents enjoy the value they get for the taxes is unrealistic and unachievable.  If that is what our leaders think, what hope is there?

I have used an image of a boat builder for a reason. I have a relative who owns and builds wooden sailing boats. After talking to him, I think that leading an organisation is a lot like building a boat. You need to design the boat to optimise the performance required – does it have to be safe in all conditions, will it have to make fast passages, or will it carry burdensome loads? One boat can’t do them all.

Then materials must be selected and the builder needs to understand the properties of those materials – how they are worked to make the boat, how they will perform under load, how they will fail, and how they can be repaired.

A boat must be made with care. There is a right and a wrong way to do it, and doing it the wrong way could lead to failure and loss of life. Finally, the boat needs to be beautiful.

This is an important point for local government.  In the same way that there is no joy in building or owning an ugly boat, success in local government must also include a sense of pride and achievement in having contributed to something worthwhile.

Chatterjee, Sayan 2013. Simple Rules for Designing Business Models, California Management Review, Winter.

124 – The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. Our councillors?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          800 words

butcher baker candlestick maker

Image

The original version of the rhyme ‘rub-a-dub-dub’ supposedly tells of three townsfolk watching a dubious sideshow at a fair. Later versions talk of them being ‘all put out to sea’, perhaps a reference to being ‘at sea’ or puzzled or bewildered (thanks Wikipedia). I think either version could work for some of our councillors today.

Councils usually have greater gender balance and occupational representation than in the rhyme. My question is, who are the people who become councillors? What attracts them to the role? Why do they do it? What do they offer? Do they really reflect the communities they represent? Continue reading

109 – How can you influence a council decision? Some tips.

Posted by Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                  670 words

sprinfield monorail

Hear the song.

 A friend recently asked me for advice on influencing a council decision regarding a park near his home. His council had plans to demolish an old community building in a park and allow a nearby disused tennis facility to be converted into bowling greens by the club based at the park. He disagreed with the plan and wanted to see the building retained and the old tennis courts turned into open parkland.

After thinking about it overnight I proposed the following ten actions Continue reading