20 – Plan, promise or accountability tool. What role does your Council Plan play?

I am always interested in documents called ‘plan’. Add ‘strategic’ and you really have my attention. I suppose it all depends on definition of a plan. Here are a few of my thoughts to add to the posts on planning by Lancing Farrell (posts 11 and 12).

I take a plan to mean a document containing your intended actions to achieve an outcome. If circumstances change, the plan will need to change accordingly. It is a mechanism for a group of people to come to a common understanding of what they are going to do and it helps communicate that to others. It guides decision making and the allocation of resources. It is a reference when you need to confirm the direction you want to go in. You probably have your own definition.

In local government, however, plans tend to take on other roles. They become public promises about actions to be taken and the objectives that will be achieved. It is the yardstick to measure the performance of the Council and the organisation and hold them accountable – have they kept their promises? Politicians keeping their promises has become a bit of an obsession in Australia. The Council Plan is the main document that fulfils that purpose in Victorian local government.

Actions from the Council Plan ‘cascade’ into department work plans and the performance plans of individuals, who are then measured on how well they achieve them. Accountability for delivering the plan – implementing the actions and producing the outputs – is then embedded. But what if circumstances change?   What if the plan you started with is no longer a good one? It does happen. As Keynes is reported to have said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Unfortunately, in local government, changing your mind about your plan is often seen as breaking promises or avoiding accountability.

This is a simplistic view of the world. Sometimes the plan needs to change in order for the same outcomes to be achieved. When the outcomes start to change all the time without a process to ensure it is what the community wants, it probably is an accountability problem. I have observed councils sticking to plans and implementing actions that everyone knows are no longer relevant, but they continue to be implemented because ‘we said that we would’. Often this happens because lead time to get an action into the plan has made it obsolete or another more relevant opportunity for action has emerged.

The emergence of a new and better way to achieve the same outcome can be the most difficult to deal with. The Council Plan is not readily amended and the amendment process is public, which opens the door to accusations of breaking promises. It is difficult for a council to take risks in producing value for the community if those risks are to be embodied in the Council Plan. There is usually a process to double check on the ‘doability’ of any actions proposed for the Council Plan – unless we are sure we can do it, it often doesn’t get included. Imagine a business only planning to do the things that it already knows it can do.

The risk is that the plan becomes a controlling document full of risk-free and relatively easily achieved actions.

Is there a solution? The flexibility of a plan to effectively guide action in achieving outcomes must be balanced against the public demand for accountability from their elected representatives and the council. The planning structure and the process to develop and review plans is probably the key. At the moment a lot rides on the Council Plan. In the absence of lesser organisational plans that capture actions and accountabilities of the organisation, they are being incorporated into the City Plan, which is essentially the plan made by the councillors for their term in office. As such, it necessarily has a political focus.

A better planning process, which is possible within the legislated planning framework, would seem to be the answer.

Colin Weatherby

19 – Integrated planning in local government. Some questions and answers. Part 2.

As discussed in the previous post, integrated planning involves each level of planning occurring in the correct sequence with goals cascading between plans to create alignment.  Here are some further thoughts.

An integrated planning process starts by effectively linking organisational strategy with planning.  Stace and Dunphy say that a ‘well argued, well documented strategic plan’ is not a strategy.  Instead, they say strategy is an ‘active process of thinking and communicating, generated at the corporate and strategic business unit levels, by which leaders gain the intellectual, emotional and behavioural commitment of their people in stretching the limits of the corporation’s ability to achieve success’.  It is the set of understandings that guide the direction and behaviour of the organisation.  Mankins and Steele believe that often strategic direction is established in spite of the strategic planning process, not because of it – “… with the big decisions being made outside the planning process, strategic planning becomes merely a codification of judgements top management has already made, rather than a vehicle for identifying and debating the critical decisions the organisation needs to make to produce superior performance”.  In local government, strategy arises from long term community plans and the day to day activities of the Council and the Executive.

So, integrated planning enables the continuous review and creation of strategy to influence plans.

An integrated planning process has one agreed set of organisational priorities. Resources are allocated to those priorities and the collective effort aims to implement those priorities and measure success in doing so.  Building an organisational plan by adding together the strategies and actions from multiple, independently created plans is unlikely to achieve this outcome. A top down approach is initially required to set high level parameters (i.e. the strategy) that planning then takes into action.  Each part of the organisation can use those parameters to create plans that cover their contribution towards achieving organisational priorities.

So, integrated planning occurs when each planning unit is working within shared parameters to achieve common strategic priorities.

An integrated planning process will link actions across functional areas.  The ‘silo’ effect commonly described in local government, needs to be overcome to achieve high performance.  If each department plans separately without clear strategic priorities and shared high level parameters, there will be a functional bias as each department optimises their activities.  There will be competition for the resources available within the common resource pool.  A focus on cross-functional processes when planning will help to integrate the work to be done in implementing strategy.  This will require processes to be identified, understood and owned, so that they can be properly considered in plans.

So, integrated planning recognises and reinforces cross-functional processes.

Planning isn’t integrated simply because we all do it at the same time, and integration isn’t achieved simply by joining together multiple independent plans.  A planning process is required that is top down and bottom up, and driven by functions (or departments) and processes.  The planning framework prescribed in NSW local government is a really good starting point.

Lancing Farrell

Mankins, Michael and Steele, Richard 2006. Stop making plans, start making strategy in Harvard Business Review, January.

Stace, Doug and Dunphy, Dexter 2007. Beyond the Boundaries – leading and re-creating the successful enterprise.

13 – Salvation, obfuscation or simply tokenistic? What roles do policies and strategies play in your organisation?

I was talking to a colleague whose Manager has recently joined Victorian local government for the first time, to find out what were her initial impressions. He said that she had commented on the large number of policies and strategies, and whether they could possibly be effective given the difficulties synchronising them and avoiding conflicts. It started me thinking.

When I first started working in local government we had policies and strategies. They were important documents that guided action. We didn’t have many and they weren’t changed without very good reason. Making a new one or changing an existing one, wasn’t a regular way forward on issues. That has certainly changed. Today, policy fills a number of roles, one of which is still to guide action. The other roles are worth some brief reflection.

Policy and strategies have increasingly become a source of salvation for CEO’s and senior managers faced with elected representatives wanting to pursue political goals that are unpopular, unaffordable, unachievable or unnecessary. It can be a way of saving politicians from themselves. Rather than committing to action on the initiative, a process to develop a policy or plan is commenced to ‘map the way ahead’. The fact that it often doesn’t lead to movement anywhere seems to go unnoticed. The last time I completed a stock take of strategies it revealed that the majority of actions hadn’t been acted on (in some cases after 20 years, although the strategy was still live) and the actions were not implemented for very good reasons. They just weren’t a good idea.

In fact doing the stock take revealed that the review schedule for policies and strategies was logistically unachievable without significant extra resources. If you look at the number of policies you have, the scheduled review interval (typically 3 to 5 years for policies and 5 to 10 years for strategies), and do the maths, you will realise that the organisation can’t actually do it without stopping delivering services to re-allocate the required resources to policy and strategy review.

Policy and strategies have also become a way to obfuscate. Instead of acting on an issue that has an obvious but difficult or expensive solution, a policy or strategy is created that hides the real significance of the issue and provides and easy, cheap and ineffective ‘way forward’. I have heard officers talking about policies or strategies that have been implemented and had no effect. The outcomes are still the same. Surprise, surprise. Sometimes the choice of policy or strategy in these situations is not deliberate – it has become almost innate and part of the modus operandi of some senior people.

One of my ‘favourite’ examples of strategies is one that deliberately failed to specifically address a critical and contentious issue. When I questioned the officer responsible for developing the strategy, he said that it was a deliberate decision on his part. Because he believed consensus was not possible and this would have delayed agreement to the strategy, he left it ambiguous so that it could be ‘sorted out later’. The ‘later’ happened to be when I became involved and there was a budget for works and no clarity about what to do. Thanks. He was a senior policy officer and it was his standard approach.

Policies and strategies have become increasingly tokenistic. In a recent post on the Pannell Discussions, the topic of ‘tokenistic policies’ was discussed. The focus was on government actions that are tokenistic, and as a consequence, unlikely to make a real difference. David Pannell asked, ‘why do governments do this, and how do they get away with it without provoking public anger?’ These are good questions and they apply to local government as much as any other level of government in Australia. I have seen policies that everyone knows are infeasible but it solves an immediate political issue in a way that minimises any future organisational commitment.

Pannell suggests two reasons for tokenistic policy. The first is to be seen to be doing something, even though they know that is unlikely to be successful. This is better to be seen to be doing nothing. His second reason is ignorance. People think it is a good idea and they don’t have the technical knowledge to know that is poor policy and will achieve little. His most interesting commentary is in relation to how governments get away with it. He cites four reasons:

  • Complexity – even experts would have trouble working out an effective policy response and most people can’t judge whether or not it is good policy and they end up trusting that the government is doing what it says it is.
  • Time lags – the effects of the policy won’t be known for some years, and by then it is hard to connect the results to the policy.
  • Intractability – some problems can only be solved at exorbitant expense or not at all. Implementing a low cost policy limits the waste of resources.
  • Communication challenges – it is just too hard to discuss the issues in terms that most people will comprehend.

I am not suggesting that all local governments are creating policies and strategies that are simply convenient but ineffective solutions to difficult problems; devices to avoid doing something that everyone knows should be done; or simply a way to be seen to be doing something with no intention of it being effective. However, there are occasions when they obviously do.

I suppose, we all need to ask ourselves the question.

Colin Weatherby

Pannell Discussions, http://www.pannelldiscussions.net/2014/10/274-tokenistic-policies

12 – ‘It’s planning time again … I can see that far away look in your eyes’ – Part 2

The legislated requirement for planning doesn’t help.   In Victoria, the Council Plan must be developed and approved by a new council within months of election. It is their plan for the 4 years of their term of office. As such, it typically reflects their political ambitions and their understanding of what the organisation needs to do to meet community needs. A councillor elected for the first time may have limited knowledge about how the council operates. In developing the Council Plan, the councillors receive guidance from the organisation but it is their plan to approve.   Once it has been created, the Council Plan is the dominant plan guiding priorities for the allocation of resources. Each year it is reviewed and ‘refreshed’ with new actions.

The department plans provide the basis for organisational guidance to the councillors in the creation of the Council Plan and its review. The ‘bottom up’ process of creating and then aggregating these plans results in lots of actions. Many councils don’t have an effective process to evaluate these actions, select the highest priority actions (and reject the lesser priority actions), and then develop feasible ways to coordinate effort and allocate resources to implement them. Instead, we accept all of the actions and the result is goal diffusion and uncoordinated effort across the organisation. Does this sound familiar?

The additional risk in this process is failure to incorporate new and emerging strategic issues because planning occurs annually at a set time. Once created and approved by the Council, the Council Plan becomes a public commitment to be met by the organisation. Actions are cascaded down through Department Plans to individual Performance Development Plans. The planning process also occurs in a relatively short period of time and the sequencing of business planning, Council Plan review and budget approval is often not ideal. The Council Plan must be approved before the budget and department plans can’t be finalised until the budget is approved. So, I hear you ask what can be done instead?

This is a difficult question to answer, which reveals part of the explanation for what is currently happening. A primary constraint is the specific legislative requirements that must be met for the development and approval of the Council Plan and the budget. However, the department by department planning approach is a choice. This is probably the place to start if you want to improve. Rather than relying on joining up 20 or more plans to guide the Council Plan, a ‘top down’ organisational planning approach could be taken. A high level Organisational Plan could be created to guide the development of each department’s plan.

This Organisational Plan could incorporate all of the existing financial settings from the Long Term Financial Plan (most councils have one of these to underpin the rating strategy and help forecast recurrent and capital requirements) and set objectives relevant to finances, workforce planning and asset management. In concert with the Council Plan, this would establish a framework for the creation of each department plan. This reflects the approach that has been undertaken by councils in NSW. In an ideal planning framework, the Community Plan would provide a 20 year planning reference for the needs of the community, the Council Plan would pick up on actions from that plan that the council wants to implement over the next 4 year period, and the Organisational Plan would cover the same time period and include activities and resources the organisation needs to deliver those actions. The annual Department Plans would be guided by the Organisation Plan and feed potential actions into the periodic reviews of the Organisation Plan and City Plan.

This approach is possible within the legislated planning requirements in Victoria. The main challenge seems to be the organisation having the confidence to develop an Organisational Plan. The leadership group must feel that it has the ‘understanding of the business’ necessary to do it.

In a future post I will discuss how planning can be better integrated and talk about what is happening in NSW in more detail.

Lancing Farrell

11 – ‘It’s planning time again … I can see that far away look in your eyes’ (with apologies to Ray Charles) – Part 1

Yes folks, it’s that time of the year again in local government when we get staff in each department together to talk about what needs to be done in the coming year. Copies of the Council Plan (the statutory 4 year plan) will be dusted off to see what high level strategies or goals have been set by the Council and, depending on how many departments you have, twenty or more Department Plans with action lists will be created. Lots of actions will be identified, described, put into SMART objectives, followed by the budget bids needed to get the funding to implement them. Maybe these Department Plans will be aggregated into a lesser number of plans covering each directorate or branch of the organisation. A familiar story?

But, is this the best way to develop an organisational plan that is realistic, achievable and focused on delivering the value sought by the community?

It is not unusual for a Council Plan to have more than 100 actions, mainly driving asset creation projects and policy reviews. ‘The delivery of basic ‘business as usual’ services (e.g. maintaining parks and roads, delivering home support services, collecting waste, building and planning approvals, local law enforcement) are often unmentioned. Each Department Plan could then have a further 5 or 10 actions, most of which will be to solve problems or implement improvements. This is potentially 200 to 300 actions to be implemented over the course of the year while ‘business as usual’ continues in delivering services.

If you look hard, you will probably find that amongst the 200 to 300 actions that there are 20 or more organisation-wide improvement actions. This could include IT projects, major system overhauls (e.g. occupational health and safety, risk management, customer service), or some major community planning (e.g. revising the community plan, master planning for new services or major facilities). Implementing these actions will require time and effort from staff across the organisation and may impact on the implementation of other planned actions and in delivering business as usual’ services.   Is it feasible for an organisation to commit to this many actions and deliver them?

I think the proof is in the eating. How many councils deliver all of their planned capital works or Council Plan actions each year? Not many. Even less will deliver on all of the actions in their directorate or department business plans. We tend to bite off more than we can chew. So, why does this happen?

Lancing Farrell