242 – A Grand Strategy.

850 words (10 minutes reading time) by Colin Weatherby and ChatGPT

“And lo, the Local Government was filled with aspirations for the community. But when the State government imposed a rate cap, limiting their capabilities, the leaders knew they must align their aspirations with their limitations through strategy. And Richard Rumelt, a wise strategist, spoke unto them saying “A good strategy addresses the most important and high stakes challenges through a coherent set of analyses, concepts, policies, arguments, and actions.” But many Local Governments strayed from this path, with strategies that lacked a clear central idea and failed to address important problems or opportunities. And Rumelt warned them “If thou fail to identify and analyze the obstacles, thou doth not have a strategy, but instead a stretch goal, a budget or a list of things thou wish would happen.” And the leaders heeded his words, and developed a good strategy to overcome their challenges.”

Source: The Book of Local Government (c/o ChatGPT)

I have been inspired for the title of this post by John Lewis Gaddis, who says strategy is necessary for ‘the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities’.  It is strategy that aligns our most important aspirations with our capabilities so that we can achieve them. It is especially important when capabilities are being limited.

Local government is full of aspirations. We deliberately ask the community what they want to create a list of things to do. We don’t wait for them to tell us. Our workers are expert at identifying new needs. We like to say that we really understand community needs and expectations. I suppose, this is where the problem starts when a State government disagrees and decides that people are being charged too much for councils to meet their needs and they introduce a rate cap.

Worse still, is when the State thinks some of those needs should not be met by the council at all or they are being met in ways that are inefficient or frivolous.

“The days of ratepayers footing the bill for Arnold Swarzeneggar impersonators are over.”

Labor leader, Daniel Andrews, 2014

I have recently re-read Richard Rumelt’s book ‘Good Strategy/Bad Strategy’. It is over 10 years old now and remains a classic on strategy. I also read his new book, ‘The Crux’. He has recently described his ideas about strategy as ‘challenge-based strategy’, which is useful when thinking about them in the context of local government. We have challenges.

Rumelt says that good strategy does more than just urge us forward and state a set of ambitions. He also laments the word strategy being used in contemporary business teaching and writing to mean so many things that is has become meaningless. Fortunately, he has a clear view.

“The core of strategy work is always the same: discovering the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors.”

He says that, to be effective, strategy must addresses the most important and high stakes challenge (or aspiration). It does this through a ‘coherent set of analyses, concepts, policies, arguments, and actions’. It all starts with identification of the most important challenge through careful diagnosis, then development of guiding policy to address the obstacles identified in the diagnosis, and, finally, a set of coherent actions to achieve the policy intent.

What is the most important challenge for your council?

This is a question I often ask colleagues. I get so many different answers that it is apparent councils don’t see one common challenge. In some cases, they can’t decide on any one challenge. This is common and leads me to bad strategy, which Rumelt says it is more than the absence of good strategy because it misdirects the efforts of the organisation. He says it is an ‘edifice built on mistaken foundations’.

Strategy is bad when it actively avoids analysing obstacles because it is difficult or seen as negative, or it is simply an exercise in goal setting. Hard choices are avoided so that no one is upset. Rumelt’s hallmarks of bad strategy are:

  1. Lack of a clear and cohesive central idea or concept.
  2. Failure to address the most important problems or opportunities.
  3. Confusion between goals and intentions.
  4. Lack of coherence or alignment between different parts of the strategy.
  5. Reliance on hope, as opposed to a realistic assessment of resources and capabilities.

I have used this list to assess some existing council strategies. Most get 5 ticks, and it is apparent that they follow a set format of ‘vision, mission, and goals’, which Rumelt describes as ‘template strategy’. This approach seems to studiously avoid focusing on the one big challenge or making any hard choices.

“If you fail to identify and analyse the obstacles, you don’t have a strategy. Instead, you either have a stretch goals, a budget, or a list of things you wish would happen.”

In local government, we like to make lists. It is always good to see everyone’s ideas written down. It is important that everyone has input and ownership. Plus, we don’t like saying no and disappointing people or alienating constituencies.

Based on the recent series of posts about rate capping, if we think that expenditure growing faster than revenue as a result of the rate cap is the biggest challenge, we should develop a strategy.

A good strategy.

On Grand Strategy (2018) by John Lewis Gaddis

Good Strategy/Bad Strategy (2011) by Richard Rumelt

The Crux (2022) by Richard Rumelt

241 – Rate capping – the final words (from our future)

250 words (3 minutes reading time) by ChatGPT (with some help)

The Victorian government has implemented a policy requiring councils to operate and deliver services within the constraints of annual Consumer Price Index (CPI) increases. This means that councils must fundamentally re-think the way they deliver services to the community in order to meet this requirement.

If there are certain services that cannot be delivered within this framework, councils must identify these “special” services and seek a higher rate cap for them. The need for these services must be explained and justified through a community engagement process, as it is essential for the council to have the support of the community for this change.

These special services could vary, such as infrastructure projects that are partially funded by the government but the operating costs fall on the local community, or natural issues specific to a region such as tree canopy coverage or flooding.

To request higher rate caps, councils must demonstrate responsible and efficient use of resources in delivering their regular services within the CPI increase constraint. This will require a dedicated team within the council to understand and work with the Essential Services Commission, the regulator overseeing this policy.

Overall, while it may require a re-thinking of current processes and the development of new skills, there is a pathway for councils to live within the rate cap and meet the needs of their community.

Footnote

It is somehow fitting that the last post on this topic (at least for now) is written by AI using information taken from previous posts. It is illustrative of the efficiencies the rate cap must drive if councils are to deliver services with only CPI increases. Over 500 words in random paragraphs were reduced to 250 words of clarity in seconds. The essential actions were gleaned from many ideas. Councils need to do this.

Footnote to the Footnote

When asked to take the Footnote and re-write it, ChatGPT became quite chatty about itself …

The task at hand for councils is clear: to deliver services to the community within the constraints of annual Consumer Price Index (CPI) increases. This requires a fundamental re-thinking of the way services are currently delivered, and an emphasis on efficiency and productivity. The use of AI, like in the example of this post, serves as a reminder of the potential for technology to aid in streamlining processes and identifying key messages. It is now up to councils to take this concept and apply it to their own operations, in order to meet the demands of the community within the rate cap.

240 – In the beginning …

1000 words (10 minutes reading time) by Carole Davidson

The posts so far about the impact of the rate cap explain what is happening, but do they really help to work out what to do about it? Councils can tighten their belts and, perhaps, raise alternative revenues to replace lost rates. My question is will that be enough?

I thought I would go back to the beginning. Why did the Victorian Labor government think the rate cap was needed and what were they hoping to achieve? I am pretty sure that unless they see the changes in local government that they were after, they will not change their position. Even if they did, it is my understanding that the rate cap has bipartisan support, so the opposition will need to agree or they will simply reintroduce it if they win office.

The earliest information I can find is a report in The Age on 4 May 2014 saying that the then Labor opposition leader Daniel Andrews was promising a rate cap if his party were to be successful in the election being held in November that year. Their stated intention was to give ratepayers a ‘fair go’. Under the rate cap, councils would have to detail where every dollar they spend goes.

“The days of ratepayers footing the bill for Arnold Swarzeneggar impersonators are over”

Source: State councils must cap rates under Labor plan, The Age 4 May 2014
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239 – Zombie councils

500 words (5 minutes reading time) by Tim Whistler

I have read Lancing and Colin’s posts with some interest. As a long-term, self-appointed local government pundit, I don’t think the rate cap can be an existential threat to local government, but it is going to turn councils into zombies. Like zombie companies, councils will become dependent on others for their survival. They will be alive but unable to think or act for themselves. Despite what people would like to think, ultimately, they will be simply the local branch of the state government delivering the services the state decides they must. This is at odds with what many councils currently think they are doing.

“Councils have autonomy to provide services that meet the needs of their local community, and will establish a range of discretionary processes, including local laws, to guide certain activities that can occur within their municipality.”

Municipal Association of Victoria, ‘Vic Councils’ website
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238 – Il comune povero- ‘The poor municipality’

1600 words (15 minutes reading time) by Colin Weatherby                                                                                                                

Great post by Lancing Farrell. I like the link to the creative and enduring solutions people have devised in response to food scarcity. Human ingenuity can be a marvellous thing.

The impact of declining financial sustainability on asset management is disturbing. As anyone directly responsible for council assets knows, for many years the biggest challenge for local government in Victoria has been the cost of caring for assets. The Institute of Public Works Engineers (IPWEA) has been advocating for better asset management for years. I would argue that the principal council service is to own and care for assets on behalf of the ‘community. The rate cap has rapidly made this much more difficult, and as Lancing showed, the challenge is not spread evenly across councils.

What can councils do in response to funding scarcity? Will our commitment and creativity help us find new ways to provide the services the community needs and expects? Our own il comune povero.

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237 Di necessità virtù – ‘Need gives rise to virtue.’

1500 words (14 minutes reading time) By Lancing Farrell                                                                                     

I was reading an article about la cucina povera, the cuisine created in Italy over centuries based on the food prepared by poor and sometimes starving people. Throughout history, people have experienced food insecurity and famine and they have adapted, but none have done it as well as the Italians.  In Italy, love, ingenuity and scarcity combined to give birth to a new and delicious cuisine that has become mainstream.

I wondered, can a similar thing happen to local government as it is starved of funds and impoverished by the Victorian government’s rate cap?

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236 – Organisation design in local government

1000 words (9 minutes reading time)                                      by Colin Weatherby

I am intrigued by the thinking behind council organisational restructures. It seems that every new CEO feels the need to redesign the organisation to make it work better. Are they successful? The question on my mind is, how can a restructure make the organisation perform better?

I recently came across a useful publication on the topic that has been provided by the Victorian Public Sector Commission. It is entitled ‘Organisational Design’  and is part of the Leading Public Organisations’ series. The intention is to provide ‘prompts, thought starters, practical ideas, and reminders for leaders and managers working in Victorian public sector organisations’.

There were certainly some useful reminders. In the first section on ‘the basic concepts’, the reminder is that organisational design is a consequence of the organisation’s goals, the work it needs to undertake, how that work is divided up (and how the bits are then connected, especially information flows), and how the work will be authorised and governed. The design is communicated through formal documents (e.g. the organisation chart, position descriptions, instruments of delegation) and informally through workplace practices (i.e. ‘the way things are done around here’). The design is also dynamic and changes in response to formal decisions (e.g. work allocation) and evolutions in practice (i.e. the workarounds that develop over time).

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234 – My experience of management thinking in local government – Part 2: The wasted years.

1200 words (10 minutes reading time)                                                      by Lancing Farrell

management experience pt 2

This second post continues my management journey back into local government. This time into the wasted years – time spent trying different management ideas without success.

Some 10 years later I re-entered local government in a management role. Now we had new management ideas, some even described to me as ‘fads’. In the time I had been out of the sector, the idea of management had gained more currency. I came across Evidenced-Based Decision Making, although as some colleagues pointed out, in practice it was more commonly ‘decision-based evidence making’.

Evidence-based management is an emerging movement to explicitly use the current, best evidence in management and decision-making. It is part of the larger movement towards evidence-based practices.

I found a very interesting sounding book at this time called The Knowing Doing Gap by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton. The title seemed to say it all – how can organisations put their knowledge into action and be more successful? I would like to say this book changed my life, but unfortunately it didn’t. Before I could read it thoroughly, I lent it to a colleague who never returned it. That closed a knowing doing gap for me – don’t lend other people your new books!

I found that Employee Surveys had now become common place. Councils were now being managed by CEOs who ‘took the temperature’ of organisational culture and then developed plans to improve it. I was never too clear on the connection between culture scores and value for customers or the community.

Employee surveys are tools used by organizational leadership to gain feedback on and measure employee engagement, employee morale, and performance.

These surveys tended to show very little change from one survey to the next, even over a decade. It suggested to me that it wasn’t helping (or relevant) but we still did it. Once I looked at a book produced by one of the big culture survey firms and I noticed that our organisational culture resembled the culture of every industry they surveyed in Australia (except industries with lots of international firms). The differences between industries were at the margins. It seems Australian culture dominates in all Australian workplaces.

After a while, I started working at a council that was implementing the Australian Business Excellence Framework (ABEF). As someone who by now was quite interested in what local government thought was good, or even better, excellent management, this seemed like a useful idea. There were lots of other councils using it (some were Gold medallists) and it was an idea developed in the private sector, which had appeal to me after returning from working in my own business. So, I joined the strategy and planning group. The CEO had decided ABEF implementation would start with that category.

abef

The EBEF framework and categories.

I found this interesting because I would have started with Leadership, simply because of its potential to effect change and improvement. Since then I have learned that you can start with any of the seven categories. My question today would be why not start with the customer?  In this time I was able to travel and meet with officers at award winning Australian councils and spent hours studying organisational strategy.

Examining how councuil strategy and planning works only highlighted for me the dysfunction in council strategy development, with various types of plans in a hierarchy (you guessed it, a triangle) with different plans or strategies created at different times and in different ways. None of it was connected in the way the triangle suggested, and, in a surprise to everyone, the group worked out that one of the key plans linking political and organisational actions, didn’t actually exist except in the triangle picture used by the CEO to explain how it worked.

The Australian Business Excellence Framework (ABEF) is an integrated leadership and management system that describes the elements essential to organisations sustaining high levels of performance. It can be used to assess and improve any aspect of an organisation, including leadership, strategy and planning, people, information and knowledge, safety, service delivery, product quality and bottom-line results.

I then discovered Lean and found that it was the new version of TQM or BPR. It seemed to embody similar thinking ideas. I never bought a book on Lean but I started working at a council with a Lean practitioner. He (and many others) spent a lot of time analysing services that weren’t working. Hours were spent collecting data and mapping processes. Days trying to understand what the data was saying and where change might make it better. In the end, while chnages were made, the problems remained unsolved.

My involvement with cross-organisational business processes led me to Karen Martin’s book The Outstanding Organisation, and then her next book Value Stream Mapping. It seemed simple, we just had to learn to understand services as a value stream and then articulate and deliver the value proposition!

A value stream depicts the stakeholders initiating and involved in the value stream, the stages that create specific value items, and the value proposition derived from the value stream. The value stream is depicted as an end-to-end collection of value-adding activities that create an overall result for a customer, stakeholder, or end-user.

Around this time there seemed to be a ‘wave’ of people-based change programs. Leading Teams and The Colloquium are examples. CEOs were clearly searching for ways to act on culture and improve survey results. No doubt these programs were useful, but building people skills wasn’t making the difference CEOs expected. I participated in one of these programs and learned a lot. It was extremely useful to me as a person responsible for managing other people. However, it didn’t help me or my organisation to produce better services.

As an aside to my management journey, in 1995 I had discovered Public Value (yes, I bought Mark Moore’s book Creating Public Value) and the idea appealed to me enormously. Of course, council services are intended to produce the value agreed by people in the community, after all, they are the ones who are paying. In 2013 I bought Mark Moore’s second book (Recognising Public Value) where he illustrates the creation of public value using case studies and describes a way of measuring it (the Public Value Scorecard (PVS)). There is no arguing with the logic of Moore’s strategic triangle, but I couldn’t work out how to use it. Even the PVS was a lagging measure – you would only know if you had succeeded or failed, when you had either succeeded or failed.

I will mention one last management fad that swept local government here recently – User-Centred Design (UCD – there always seems to be an acronym). The council I was working at made a commitment to ‘customer first’ and commenced the analysis and re-design of services using the UCD methodology. We developed personas, customer apps, online forms. It really should have been called ‘digital first’. The problem that emerged was lack of integration between these new and easier ways for customers to deal with us and the actual service delivery systems. It had become easier for customers to make their needs known to us, and to place a demand on one of our service systems, but we were just as slow to respond, and just as likely to fail to satisfy their need.

The upshot of all my thinking and doing was a level of dissatisfaction with the way things are and a determination to find a way to deliver better services. I felt a compulsion to do this as rate capping was reducing our revenues and making it harder to make ends meet. A better way was needed.

Another pattern had emerged – I was now interested both in services as a cross-organisational process, and how you help an organisation to change and improve services.

It was at this time that I recalled some earlier reading I had done on systems thinking and the application of systems thinking in organisations. It started with Alistair Mant and his excellent book, Intelligent Leadership, that I had purchased in the late 90s. I also bought and read David Wastell’s book Managers as Designers in the Public Sector, and through that book came across John Seddon’s book, also from the Triarchy Press stable, on Systems Thinking in the Public Sector. The idea that systems thinking could provide a solution to service improvement became clear in my mind.

I also became convinced that Command and Control thinking (a term used by John Seddon) was a barrier to service improvement. Councils are highly siloed organisations. We like functional specialisation. Each discipline focuses on their work and excelling at what they do. Hierarchy is critical for decision making and it is often the only way that the silos become linked. Senior management have the ‘umbrella’ jobs that integrate work across silos, or at least that is where it can and must happen in a Command and Control hierarchy.

I started looking for more information about systems thinking. At some stage I came across David Stroh’s book Systems Thinking for Social Change. By then I was hooked. There had to be a way of applying systems thinking to improve local government performance in delivering services that provides public value. The challenge was to find a method to do it. The ideas were interesting and well-articulated, but how do you use them to do the work differently?

By now I had begun blogging to communicate with others experiencing the same frustrations as me. It helped me to learn.

233 – My experience of management thinking in local government – Part 1: The formative years.

1000 words  (9 minutes reading time)                                      by Lancing Farrell

management experience pt 1

I was talking to a colleague recently, and I was asked about the management thinkers that have influenced me. It started me thinking back to my early days as a manager in my mid-20s and later when I completed a MBA in my mid-30s. And the lessons I had from starting and then managing my own business for a decade. Many management thinkers influenced me, and, equally, so did my opportunities to practice different ways of managing. This is quite a long essay, so I have split it into three parts.

I recall that before I was a manager, I had an interest in management. I wasn’t too sure what it was but I had read The Peter Principle as a student, and I knew that management was important in organisations if they were to be effective. For some reason I also remember that someone at the council where I started working was talking about Value Management. Now I know that they had obviously been to a course. Then I got a job as a manager. Continue reading

229 – Coronavirus and local government – time for a new O/S?

800 words (4 minutes reading time)                                                           by Colin Weatherby

A new city operating system cover Goldsmith

This is the first in a series of posts requested to discuss the Coronavirus and local government services.

I recently read ‘A New City O/S – The Power of Open, Collaborative and Distributed Governance‘ by Stephen Goldsmith and Neil Kleiman. Some time ago I read ‘A Responsive City‘ by Stephen Goldsmith and this latest book takes Goldsmith’s thinking about cities and their governance to a new level. As a former Mayor (Indianapolis), deputy Mayor (New York) and the current Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Stephen Goldsmith is well credentialled to discuss local government.

It is timely to read Goldsmith and Kleiman’s book as local government services adapt to the Coronavirus, react to ensure the safety of staff and the community, seek to understand emerging service demands, and start to look ahead at recovery and the best way to deliver services post-Coronavirus. Continue reading