24 – High performance in local government. Part 2 – How can you make it happen?

In Part 1 I talked about what a high performing local government organisation could look like. In this post I look at how you can improve performance to become high performing. Change management is a buzz phrase in local government at the moment. Everyone in leadership seems to accept that there is a need for change but they can’t agree on how to do it.

Frank Ostroff has some good advice for change agents in the public sector. He says that sustained performance improvement isn’t hampered by failure to identify solutions; indeed, he suggests they are often straightforward. In Part 1 made a list of 24 actions that you could start with to create a high performance local government organisation. Why not just implement them? Part of the answer lies in what Ostroff describes as the four unique obstacles to change in public services.

  1. Leaders are not appointed on the basis of their commitment or experience in reform. Instead, they are appointed for their ‘command of policy, technical expertise or political connections’.
  2. Leaders are appointed for relatively short periods and have limited time to see reforms through to conclusion. Therefore, they tend to focus on quick policy reforms.
  3. Rules covering activities such as procurement, personnel, and budgeting put in place to prevent wrong-doing have made government inflexible. The penalties for failure are also greater than the rewards for exceptional performance.
  4. Everyone has a rightful stake in government activities. Almost any reform is likely to meet with resistance.

I know he is talking about government in the US, and there are some significant differences in Victorian local government. But there are also strong similarities. His four obstacles are just as prevalent, even if it is for some different reasons.

Ostroff provides some insights into the characteristics of successful public service reforms. He describes five principles and illustrates them in some detail with cases. His first principle is to ‘improve performance against mission’. This resonates with the work of Mark Moore about the creation of public value. As with Moore, he says that the mission should be the focus. Improvement in performance achieving the mission (i.e. creating the required public value) needs to be the fundamental objective of the reform program. This makes a lot of sense in local government, where the ‘why’ often becomes unclear or generic.

His second principle is to ‘win over stakeholders’. This is important within and outside your organisation to create a broad support base for reform. His third principle is to ‘create a roadmap for reform’. He suggests three phases; identify performance objectives; set priorities; and roll out the program. It is essential to formulate a vision and set a clear path for reform.

The fourth principle is to take a comprehensive approach. He relates reform to organisational redesign involving integration and alignment of leadership, structure, processes, infrastructure, people and performance management. This concurs with Rummler and Brache and their thinking about the ‘infrastructure’ required for sustained performance improvement, as opposed to episodic campaigns. This involves seeing the organisation vertically and horizontally. They talk about the various levels of an organisation (vertical) and the performance needs (horizontal). I have reproduced their ‘nine performance variables’ diagram below.

the 9 performance variables

The performance needs must be met by the organisational leadership to ensure that work flows smoothly across boundaries. I think that taking a comprehensive approach is particularly good advice for local government, which seems to naturally form silos based on disciplines or functions. Failure to integrate or align is often the reason that reform is necessary.

The last principle is about the importance of being a leader, not a bureaucrat. Ostroff believes that public service managers are inherently respectful of barriers and may hesitate to remove them. There needs to be a readiness to demolish barriers to reform. He says that they are also likely to have to establish trust and demonstrate their sincerity. The failure of successive reforms often leads to cynicism, which needs to be overcome.

Ostroff cautions of the need to be aware of present realities, respect the complexity of what you are trying to do, and to hold people accountable for both results and their commitment to the reform effort. These are key points for local government reform. Present realities include organisational culture and its resistance to change. The complexity inherent in local government activities presents special challenges during a period of reform. Finally, the lack of effort to measure performance and use results to improve seems to be a hallmark of local government. In a reform process there must be accountability if it is to endure once the reform has been implemented.

In a nutshell, formulate your vision, take your present situation into account, seek the support of your stakeholders, set a clear path, be mindful of the complexity in what you are doing, and hold people accountable. Good luck.

Lancing Farrell

Ostroff, Frank   2006. Change Management in Government, in Harvard Business Review, May.

Rummler, Geary A., and Brache, Alan P. 1995. Improving Performance – How to Manage the White Space on the Organisation Chart.

22 – High performance in local government. Part 1 – What could it look like?

I think this is a good question. In fact, a very good question. People often talk about ‘best practice’ and ‘performance improvement’ without ever describing how it relates to high performance and what it would look like if it was achieved. Interestingly, the Australian Government Public Service Commission recently published on high performance organisations. This indicates that high performance is becoming a topical issue for the public sector.

As a methodology for describing a high performance local government organisation (HPLOGO) I have used Andre de Waal’s paper ‘The Characteristics of a high performance organisation’ and selected my ‘top 3’ characteristics for each of the 8 elements he describes in the HPO framework. These are the main characteristics that I believe would be present in a HPLOGO. More importantly, this is where I think you should start if you want to create one.   I have limited myself to 24 actions because it is probably already too many. To help act on this idea I have written each characteristic as an action.

To begin, it is important to understand the framework developed by de Waal. I have reproduced it below.

HPO framework

The idea is that the elements influence the degree to which members of the organisation will exhibit performance driven behaviour, which in turn determines whether it is a HPO. Here goes.


Organisational design

  1. Simplify and flatten the organisation by reducing boundaries and barriers between and around units.
  2. Stimulate cross-functional and cross-organisational collaboration by making team work and collaboration the top priority for management.
  3. Immediately realign the organisation with changing internal and external circumstances by setting up an adaptable business model.

What characteristics didn’t get a mention? Foster organisation-wide sharing of information, knowledge and best practices. Not because I don’t think it is important, but it would come next.

Strategy

  1. Align strategy, goals and objectives with the demands of the external environment.
  2. Provide clarity and a common understanding of the organisation’s direction and strategy.
  3. Create a strong vision that excites and challenges based on a ‘big idea’.

What characteristics didn’t get a mention? Lots. Again, this was not because I don’t think it is important. They would come next:

  • Set clear, ambitious, measurable and achievable goals.
  • Balance the long-term and short-term focus.
  • Adopt a strategy that sets the organisation apart (I think this is less relevant in local government).

Process management

  1. Continuously optimise processes by connecting the entire value chain.
  2. Continuously simplify and improve all organisational processes to improve responsiveness and eliminate unnecessary work.
  3. Deploy resources effectively to activities that create value.

What characteristics didn’t get a mention? Lots again:

  • Measure what matters.
  • Create highly interactive internal communication.
  • Report the financial and non-financial information needed to drive improvement to everyone.
  • Strive to be a best practice organisation.
  • Continuously innovate processes and services.

Technology

  1. Apply user-friendly ICT tools to increase usage.
  2. Implement flexible ICT systems.

What characteristics didn’t get a mention? None.

Leadership*

  1. Commit to the organisation for the long haul and balance common purpose with self-interest.
  2. Live with integrity and lead by example.
  3. Hold people responsible for results and be decisive about non-performers.
  4. Apply decisive, action-focused decision-making.

I couldn’t pick just 3!

What characteristics didn’t get a mention?

  • Set high standards and stretch goals.
  • Maintain trust relationships with people at all levels in the organisation.
  • Allow experiments and mistakes.
  • Develop an effective, focused and strong management style.
  • Assemble a diverse and complementary management team and workforce.
  • Grow leaders from within.

Individuals and roles

  1. Align employee behaviour and values with organisational values and direction.
  2. Engage and involve the workforce.
  3. Create a learning organisation by continuously investing in training.

What characteristics didn’t get a mention?

  • Create a safe and secure workplace (I have assumed that this is a given)
  • Develop people to be resilient and flexible.
  • Attract exceptional people with a can-do attitude who fit the culture.
  • Master core competencies and stick to them.

Culture

  1. Establish clear, strong and meaningful core values and make sure they are widely shared.
  2. Develop and maintain a performance driven culture by fighting inertia and complacency.
  3. Create a culture of transparency, openness and trust through shared understanding, by sharing information, and fostering informality.

What characteristics didn’t get a mention?

  • Empower people by giving them freedom to decide and act.
  • Create a shared identify and sense of community.

External orientation

  1. Continuously strive to enhance customer value creation.
  2. Grow through partnerships and being part of a value-creating network.
  3. Maintain good and long-term relationships with all stakeholders.

What characteristics didn’t get a mention?

  • Monitor the environment and respond to shifts and opportunities.
  • Only enter new activities that complement the organisation’s strengths.

You can probably see a pattern emerging. My focus in creating a HPLOGO would be on value creation, systems and processes, integration and alignment, measurement and accountability, the short and the long term, and engagement and trust.

Lancing Farrell

Australian Government Public Service Commission (AGPSC) 2014. (http://www.apsc.gov.au/publications-and-media/current-publications/human-capital-matters/2014/high-performance-organisations/2014/high-performance-organisations).

de Waal, Andre 2007. ‘The Characteristics of a high performance organisation’ (http://www.andredewaal.eu/pdf2007/HPO-BSS2007.pdf)