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

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210 – Is innovation over-rated in local government?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                         1100 words

patched road

I was recently reading an article in Aeon magazine entitled ‘Hail the maintainers’. The central idea is that ‘capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more’. I think you could replace ‘capitalism’ with ‘local government’, although I am not sure that we are excelling. We are certainly preoccupied with trying to be innovative (or at least being seen to be innovative).

The authors, Lee Vinsell and Andrew Russell, believe that innovation is the dominant ideology of our era. Pursuing innovation has inspired both technologists and capitalists. It has also attracted critics.

“What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives that the vast majority of technological innovations. “

The idea that local government must be more innovative reflects the willing (and often mindless) adoption of populist ideas from the private sector by local government.   After all, being innovative is sexier than doing what we have always done but making sure we do it well. Continue reading

209 – Local government and humour – sometimes you just have to laugh.

Posted by Whistler                                                                                               400 words

Geelong Mayor

Image – The Geelong Advertiser, 2 April 2016.

There have been a number of humorous posts in the life of Local Government Utopia. And sometimes you do just have to laugh. Humour is often used in a uniquely Australian way to make a point. Often the point is quite serious, a I think it usually is in the case of local government.

For example, whilst the Mayor of Geelong, Darryn Lyons (aka ‘Daz’), parades as a figure of fun, the Council he leads is far from funny. If media reports are accurate, it is about to be sacked for bullying, poor leadership, and a general lack of competence. You could be forgiven for thinking that it was a mistimed April Fools’ day joke.  Many of his constituents think he is marvellous.  Some find this surprising but I think it goes to a fundamental and unfortunate truth about how local government is viewed by many in the community

A colleague related a story to me about the Mayor of Geelong.   Continue reading

203 – ‘Systems Thinking for Social Change’ by David Peter Stroh.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                                         950 words

systems thinking for social chnage

The subtitle of this book says it all – ‘A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results’.   Every so often you pick up a book and it provides answers to problems that you and thousands of others grapple with every day. This is one of those books.   David Stroh co-founded ‘Innovation Associates’ with Peter Senge, who later wrote the management classic ‘The Fifth Discipline’. Both are proponents of systems thinking. The premise of this book is that ‘applying systems thinking principles and tools enables you to achieve better results with fewer resources in more lasting ways’. Wow.

Stroh uses detailed, real-world examples to make his case. His ‘systems stories’ explain how people can improve performance by shifting from just trying to optimise their part of the system, to improving the relationships between all parts of the system.   The systems stories start with seeing the big picture.

It is often the case in local government that people focus mainly on their functional responsibilities and either fail to see connections to the work of others, or they are not interested. Life is simpler when achievable goals can be set and complexity is overlooked. Putting the effort in to understanding the whole system is seldom rewarded. Local government is epitomised by sayings like ‘keep it simple’, ‘look for quick wins’, and ‘pick the low hanging fruit’.

In contrast, Stroh uses the ancient Indian story of the blind men and the elephant to illustrate the importance of the big picture. Continue reading

198 – Essay No. 5 – Local government and leadership.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         1300 words

Mark H Moore strategic triangle

Mark H. Moore’s ‘strategic triangle’ – the basis for value-led public sector management

I have been thinking about leadership a lot recently. It has been a recurring theme in posts on this site. Reading Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book has challenged my thinking about how leaders work and what motivates them. It has reinforced some of my scepticism about leaders and why they do what they do. I tend to agree with Peter Drucker’s questioning of the distinction between leadership and management. Ultimately, organisations, particularly in the public sector, have to be managed. The idea that somehow managers aren’t leaders or that leaders aren’t managing doesn’t make sense.

Having said that, I can think of organisational leaders I have known who couldn’t manage. At some point they just ticked the leadership box and assumed the position! Pfeffer explains how and why everyone then goes along with it. Once you are a leader it seems you can get to stay there without any real scrutiny and accountability for your performance. That has definitely been my experience in local government.

I keep imagining myself working in an organisation with an effective leader who manages the organisation for high performance (not career advancement). One that provides clear strategy, direction and goals.  One who coordinates effort to  across the organisation to achieve those goals. In particular, I have been thinking about how they could do that in local government. Continue reading

196 – Making local government organisations simpler to manage – why is it necessary?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         1700 word

complexity knotted rope

I was at a meeting recently where the team charged with conducting an organisational self assessment (OSA) and preparing an organisational improvement plan (OIP) using the Australian Business Excellence Framework were evaluating progress. It was an interesting meeting of a diverse group of people. By the end of the meeting we had reached a common conclusion – a council organisation is complex and systems need to be disentangled and simplified so that it can be managed effectively.

The OIP actions were developed independently from the outcomes of the OSA. It was only after 12 months of effort to implement the actions that the high level of congruence between them became apparent. Very few actions relating to core organisational systems could be implemented without impacting on each other – they overlapped. Attempting to deal with them one by one wasn’t going to work but joining them all together would create a large and very complicated action.

There is an earlier post on complexity which describes some of the sources of complexity in local government. It helps to know what you are dealing with but that doesn’t make it any easier. This was reinforced by reading former Victorian Premier John Brumby’s excellent memoir ‘The Long Haul – Lessons from Public Life’. In reflecting on the last four years in which he has viewed politics as an outsider, Brumby comments on the lack of trust that ‘permeates almost everything we see and hear about politics today’.

He believes that part of restoring trust and credibility in politics is to give the public a better understanding of the complexity of the issues.

“When I first sat in the federal parliament, an older and wiser member told me: ‘For every complex problem there is a simple solution … and it’s always wrong’. We live in a world where the questions are becoming more complex, while the public appetite is for ever simpler answers: the kind that can be summed up in 140 characters or less”

My question is, do you think that people want to be bothered by the complexity involved in getting what they want through political processes? Continue reading

192 – Boundaries, interfaces and thresholds. Why do we love them so much?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                         450 words

stile over fence boundary

I was at a meeting recently where officers were discussing who is responsible for different maintenance activities. They had developed a ‘demarcation information guide’ for the managers of facilities so that they could try and work out who to contact for different maintenance tasks. It told you who looked after fences, paths, lights, floor coverings, broken windows, etc. It started me thinking about local government’s penchant for boundaries (nobody suggested that an alternative could be service integration).

I think we like to set boundaries because it lets us focus on what is special about ourselves as a point of differentiation from other local governments. I once worked at a council where the CEO said that we should act as though the world ended at the municipal boundary. We were different to everyone else. He said to imagine that if you left the municipality you would fall off the edge of the world. As a leadership ‘device’ it certainly focussed attention on the municipality. It was a simple and effective way to differentiate the council – pretend there is nowhere else!

This approach reinforces the view that each council is ‘special and different’, rather than accepting that we have more in common than we have that is different . This view is evident when councils are reluctant to share systems or services. In Victoria we resisted municipal amalgamations and many councils still complain about them. I think it is part of our culture to resist ideas from outside our sector or organisation. This creates a safe and reliable place.

We also like interfaces. If we didn’t, why would we design our organisations around town planners, engineers, social workers and accountants? The functional structure of councils creates lots of interfaces between units, departments and divisions in the processes that actually deliver services. It is these interfaces that result in service failure and the resultant ‘failure demand’ identified by John Seddon. Work flows across interfaces, not up and down within silos.

And thresholds abound. There are the tiered levels of authority delegated by the CEO. The typical council ‘command and control’ structure, so criticised by John Seddon, puts in place lots of hierarchical thresholds. We have entry levels for employment. Anyone unsuccessful in applying for a senior role will be familiar with the response ‘we had other applicants already at the required level’ when you seek feedback.   We like to employ people based on what they have done rather than what they can do. Suppliers and contractors who are new to local government struggle to get a customer. Once you have worked for a council, the others will open their doors. Getting the first council is the hard bit.

I think that the attachment to boundaries, interfaces and thresholds comes from our desire to limit things –  the extent of our responsibilities; the extent of authority; the amount of risk we will take.