179 – Some thoughts on local government and public value.

Posted by Parkinson                                                                       1400 words

common good

A number of posts written have been written about public value by others (see Why do we provide the services that we do in local government?, Customer, client, citizen, resident or ratepayer. Who are we dealing with?, Applying the public value scorecard in local government services. Part 1. , Applying the public value scorecard in local government services. Part 2., Public value gap analysis. A tool., Public value gap analysis. Some actions., Making high performance happen through value-led management., and Value-led management in local government. Some further thoughts). This post is an attempt to provide a context for further thinking about public value in local government.

Common good and public value

The political philosopher Michael Sandel has identified that rising social inequality is leading to a separation in ways of life between the rich and the poor. He believes that when this happens there is no longer a common way of life because “they don’t use the same public institutions, don’t inhabit the same civic spaces, and don’t avail themselves of the same public services”. As a result, Sandel believes that we can cease to think that we are ‘in it together’ enough to even deliberate together as members of a political community to determine common good.

The gap between the rich and poor is growing in Australia. According to the Oxfam report ‘Still the Lucky Country?’, the wealthiest Australian are disproportionately influential and the poor are at risk of being marginalised and unheard. Extreme wealth provides the power to influence government policies that favour those with wealth, regardless of what would work best for the whole of society.

The common good is the ‘large’ form of public value. Continue reading

116 – Are we really that ‘special and different?’ Another answer: ‘Yes, of course’.

Posted by Parkinson                                                                                       450 words


It has been a while since I posted but I couldn’t resist this topic. I appreciate the views put forward by Lancing Farrell and they have merit. But, from my point of view it is obvious why councils are different and should remain different.

Councils need different capabilities to serve their communities. These capabilities have often been developed over time in response to drivers evident to community leaders. For example, provide excellent customer service in delivering basic services to an affluent and demanding community; be able to build new infrastructure quickly and well to meet the needs of a rapidly growing peri-urban council – with limited resources; make sure that ageing facilities are cared for to protect their cultural values in a heritage place.

The leadership of every community will be different. Continue reading

65 – Service suppliers to local government. What do they do differently and why?

Posted by Parkinson                                                                                       350 words

integrated systems

It has always intrigued me that the major suppliers of services to local government operate quite differently. What are some of the differences and why?

The first difference that is obvious is the investment in enterprise management systems. Some are better developed and more integrated than others but all have a third party accredited quality (ISO 9001), safety (AS4801), and environment (ISO 1400) systems. They will also have a corporate operations manual and a management manual setting out company policy and requirements. Continue reading

21 – Inundated and manipulated, or respected and influential. How do your councillors feel?

“Politics is the answer that a liberal democratic society has given to the (analytically unresolvable) question of what things should be produced for collective purposes with public resources”.

I was reading this quote from Mark H. Moore (Creating Public Value, p.54) and I thought it might be worth discussing some of the issues relevant to the sometimes uneasy relationship between politicians and the administration in local government. Politicians have a tough job to do. In Victorian local government, the job is made harder for several reasons that are worth some consideration.

Councillors are volunteers. They receive what is effectively a stipend for their many hours of work in representing their constituents. They may have no political experience or skills when elected. They often don’t know the other councillors elected with them and have no relationship with them. If they do, it could be because they have competed with them at previous elections. Often, councillors are elected who have diametrically opposed platforms – they believe their mandate is to achieve the opposite outcome to another councillor.

This situation is quite different to other levels of government in Australia where politicians usually belong to a political party, they know each other, and they share political views and ambitions. If elected to govern, they work as a team towards their goals (or they should do). They are also much more likely to have political skills or experience (sometimes acquired as a local government councillor). They are also paid enough to enable them to dedicate their time to the role, and it is expected that they will do so.

When local government councillors are elected, they have an immediate workload – develop a City Plan within 6 months, approve contracts outside the CEO’s delegation, etc. At the same time, they are learning about the responsibilities of their role – conflicts of interest, meeting procedure, the Local Government Act. And it goes on. Imagine starting a new job (which, by the way, is in addition to your current full time job) and having to learn how to do it while you do it in front of a public audience. It is worth remembering that the public nature of a councillors work is a key factor in the decisions they make.

The skills and abilities of individual councillors and the dynamics of the group are critical to the performance of a council. You often hear people saying that the councillors should ‘act more as a team’; however, a council cannot always function as a team. In fact, the community often expects the opposite. They want to see councillors challenge each other and vigorously debate issues. If councillors do caucus and/or if they always agree in the council chamber, they are often criticised. The local newspapers rely on contention in the council chamber to help maintain readership and will often do their best to create it if it doesn’t occur naturally. In some ways, representative democracy works best when politicians pursue different agendas and there is conflict between ideas, so long as the debate and decision-making processes enable the best ideas to be adopted.

So what does this all mean for the council administration?

For a start, don’t expect councillors to be highly skilled in the role, willing to work cooperatively with each other, or prepared to agree with one another. Be pleased if they are, but don’t be disappointed if they aren’t. Plan for the most likely situation. Support the councillors in developing the skills required to participate in formal meetings, publicly debate and issue, and deal with the demands of their constituents.   Create processes that are tailored to councillors needs and effective in informing them about issues to enable informed and vigorous debate. Make them feel respected and empowered. Not inundated and manipulated. Allow the time required for the council to understand issues and make considered decisions.

In saying this, I am mindful of the workload of councils. They have a lot to do and limited time to do it. I have often thought that the main capacity constraint is the time available for councillors to meet and be informed or make decisions. It is a challenging ‘finite capacity’ scheduling problem and probably should be approached in that way. Ask the councillors how often they would like to meet and for how long. This will give you the available time for briefings and meetings. You now know the available capacity.

Then list the statutory decisions that the council must make (e.g. elect the Mayor, adopt the budget), estimate the decisions council must make that cannot be delegated (e.g. approve large contracts, adopt policies or strategies), and then estimate the time that the administration believes it needs with the council to discuss matters that cannot be delegated without direction (e.g. changes in the operating environment, major strategies or projects). Subtract the time required from the time available. You now have the ‘discretionary’ time available for the councillors to pursue their agendas or debate topical issues of interest to them. It won’t be as much time as they want.

Discipline with time is often not a strength of councillors and they can be inefficient in using time because of the group dynamics. But they have choices. For example, they could choose to increase the time available by meeting more often or for longer. There are limits to this, particularly for councillors in full time employment. Another option is to choose to work within the available time and accept the restrictions that this places on them in terms of choosing what is discussed. They will need to priorities as a group and in collaboration with the CEO to optimise the use of time and meet all obligations. A further option is to delegate more decision making to the CEO and the administration. This requires trust and an initial investment of time in ensuring that the policies guiding delegated decision making are acceptable to the council.

In practice, councillors are constantly under time pressure and often they have not been presented with all their options in a way that makes them feel that they are in charge and making the decision. They get swept into the business of dealing with issues and making decisions, feel under pressure to make decisions (sometimes with political consequences), and their trust and confidence in the administration is eroded. Resolving the problem then becomes much harder.

Councillors are asked to make tough decisions under difficult circumstances. Be reasonable in your expectations and plan to support them in ways that meet their need to feel respected and influential.


Moore, Mark 1995. Creating Public Value.

10 – What has changed in local government in Victoria since the 1990’s?

Much has changed in Victorian local government since the reforms of the Kennett Liberal/National Party coalition government in the mid 1990’s. It is worth reviewing some of thosem reforms for the benefit of those people who have entered the sector more recently. It may explain why some things are the way that they are.

The context for these reforms is relevant. There had been limited change in local government structure or function for decades. Voluntary amalgamations were resisted. Some regional resource sharing initiatives had been put in place, mainly in rural areas. The organisational structure had changed in the 1980’s from the traditional ‘two headed’ Town Clerk and City Engineer model, to a corporate structure headed by a CEO. A number of new functions had appeared, for example information technology, human resources and occupational health and safety. The focus on ‘roads, rates and rubbish’ had begun to change, but only just and only slowly.

The Kennett reforms accelerated the rate of change. Indeed, many onlookers would say that they ‘threw out the baby with the bath water’ in their haste. The reforms were driven by the public choice ideology evident in other conservative governments, most notably that of Margaret Thatcher in the UK.   This involved use of private sector management approaches in the public sector, creation of pseudo-markets for public services, and privatisation. There was a very strong view that local government needed to change quickly to become more efficient and accountable, and that councils were unwilling to change unless compelled.

The objectives of the reforms are much easier to see with hindsight – decrease costs, improve efficiency, reduce the size and scope of the public sector, and, importantly for the Kennett government, reduce the influence of trade unions. There was a focus on councils becoming ‘enablers’ rather than service providers, creating competition for delivery of public services, and separation of policy making from service provision in accordance with the now infamous ‘steering, not rowing’ concept from Reinventing Government by Osborne and Gaebler, which had been published in 1992.

The legislative changes introduced included electoral reform, senior management contracts, municipal amalgamations, rating controls, compulsory competitive tendering, and a 20% rate reduction. As you can imagine, this raft of changes created turmoil. Overall, the combined effect was to diminish local government and limit its role. In subsequent reforms, little has been done to re-establish local government as an effective level of government. Indeed, the rate capping currently proposed by the Daniels Labor government further diminishes it.

There have been some benefits. The forced amalgamations resulted in larger and more powerful local governments capable of more efficient service delivery. Amalgamation has provided economies of scale, especially for some of the very small urban or rural municipalities who were joined to their larger neighbours. In addition, there is now more responsiveness to customers and the community. This is the result of a number of the reforms, most notably the need to reduce rates by 20% and competitively tender services. Councils needed to start talking to their communities about services that would be withdrawn, reduced or otherwise changed. The formation of new council organisations during amalgamations facilitated the implementation of major IT systems and significantly improved the capabilities of councils.

Some of the disbenefits of the reforms are also evident. The electoral reforms moved councils away from annual and partial council elections to periodic and whole of council elections. This has increased the potential for episodic and transformational changes when large numbers of councillors change at an election. The linked reform of planning processes has locked councils into planning cycles integrated with the election cycle. It is now difficult to effectively think or plan further ahead than the next election. For some councils the forced rate reduction was unsustainable. Residents have suffered from reduced services since and, in real terms it has taken these councils 20 years to recover their revenues. Cost cutting and competitive tendering ended many careers prematurely and resulted in a ‘brain drain’ from local government. Council organisations also became much flatter (to copy the private sector and be competitive), which has reduced career development opportunities.

The fixed tenure of senior officers, especially the CEO, has had a significant impact. Survival and success for the CEO is now dependent on their relationship with the council. Many CEO’s have not had their contract renewed and some have been terminated because their relationship with their councillors deteriorated. For most CEO’s this is now their highest priority. In response to this new pressure, they have tended to appoint senior officers who will support them, and the needs of the organisation or the community have become secondary.

In summary, the reforms of the 1990’s have decreased the resources available to local government and service levels in many areas, particularly those that are resource intensive, have declined. This has had impacts on the sustainability of infrastructure for with reduced capital funding available for asset renewal. Competition has increased in service delivery. And there is now much more competition in thinking about policy and strategy. It is no longer the sole domain of the administration and this has led to some new thinking and innovation. The focus on customer service has made the ‘voice’ of the individual louder than ever, which has improved customer service, but has also created some conflicts with preferences expressed by the broader community. Most influentially, organisational leadership now depends much more on the goodwill in their relationship with the councillors for success.