186 – Essay No. 1 – Local government and accountability.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              2000 words

rabbit in headlights

This is the first in a series of essays to wrap up the 200 opinions, essays and observations planned for Local Government Utopia. As such, it attempts to bring together some of the themes that have emerged in the various posts.

Have you ever imagined yourself to be in the office of the CEO?

You have arrived at work to be told that The Ombudsman’s office wants to talk to you about the outcome of an investigation triggered by a Whistleblower. You have a meeting at the Auditor General’s office that morning to discuss the latest report they have released on Council Customer Service. A copy of the Independent Broad-based Anti Corruption Committee (IBAC) report on Council Depot Management is in your in tray along with a complicated Freedom of Information request.

That evening you have a Risk and Audit Committee meeting where you need to explain the lack of action in implementing recommendations from the 10 internal audits completed in the previous year. A councillor has left you a phone message saying they are unhappy with a decision regarding services delivered to an elderly resident. There is an email from the local newspaper wanting comment on an expose they are running on councillor entitlements.

I am sure this is not a usual day. But it also isn’t an entirely unrealistic scenario either. There are lots of sources of accountability for local government. Often, they act on the organisation independently and there is no effort (and sometimes no opportunity) to coordinate the organisational response. As a result, sources of accountability frequently operate at cross purposes and can be counter-productive. Continue reading

182 – Public management, or management in public?

Posted by Whistler                                                          220 words

scaredy cat

I was reminded today of a practice that seems to have crept into local government with the increasing insecurity and risk aversion of top management. It is similar to the concept of ‘risk farming’.

The practice involves your manager avoiding responsibility by setting up meetings for anything that is happening that they sense could have a down side. In the past, a discussion with your manager at your one-on-one meetings would have sufficed. You could let them know what is happening and undertake to keep them informed.

Now, they are likely to ask you to set up a series of meetings involving them and anyone else they can think of who may have an interest in the matter. The purpose is to ‘keep an eye’ on the issue and ‘support’ you in seeing it through. At the meetings you become publicly accountable for your management of the matter.

In the event that the matter blows up, your manager will implicate everyone else involved and they will be witnesses to your failure. Your manager will no longer be held accountable for your performance – after all, there was a whole group of people ‘supporting’ you.

I am old enough to remember when a manager would provide support by encouraging and advising, and by standing by your side when things were getting tough. They don’t seem to be able to get out of the way fast enough now.

As someone said to me recently, when people don’t know something they get sacred and when they get scared their aversion to risk goes up.

175 – In-vehicle GPS – Part 1: Why every council should have it.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                                              1100 words

in vehicle gps

I remember looking at in-vehicle monitoring devices in the 1990’s. The technology was basic and there was no 4G network. Since then councils have flirted with in-vehicle GPS. As far as I know, no council in Victoria has installed it throughout their vehicle fleet. This is partially explained by the industrial relations implications (see the next post) but I think it is really explained by the lack of focus on customer service and productivity that pervades the sector. Rate capping will change that.  Most councils wouldn’t even be aware of the potential benefits from the technology. Hence this post.

So, what are the features and benefits of in-vehicle GPS that councils should be thinking about? Continue reading

100 – ‘We’ll get the managers to sign off’. The second most common local government phrase.

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          500 words

sign here

I guess this is the second most common phrase and it links to Colin Weatherby’s post about managers spending their time scraping burnt toast. One of the dysfunctions common in local government is the assignment of responsibility to managers for authorising everything by everyone changing a system or process, usually to eliminate their own risk.

I suppose some examples are in order. Advertising for a vacant job. An authorisation will already have been obtained to fill the position but the manager must sign to authorise the placement of the advertisement. Why? I guess that one day someone must have put in an advertisement for a position that wasn’t approved. But is this an effective or necessary control? Has the exception made the rule?

What about putting a new supplier onto the council’s system? Continue reading

37 – Risk delegation. Who has it at your council?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         480 words

Have you ever wondered who has the formal delegation to accept risk on behalf of the organisation? I know that you probably spend most of your time dealing with systems that seek to reduce or eliminate risk, but what happens when risks must be taken? How do you assess and accept those risks?

My bet is that there is no system to accept risk and that your organisation has little understanding of the risks that are being taken by managers each day. I think that the absence of a system to formally assess and accept risks is the reason there are endless systems to get rid of it. I am not talking about the Risk Register and the big strategic or operational risks that are obvious to everyone. I am talking about the daily risks that arise when something hasn’t worked out the way you would like it to but work must go on. Continue reading

29 – Local government shared services. Is it the silver bullet for rate capping? – Part 2

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         950 words

In the previous post, I discussed economies of scale and the cost savings possible through shared services. This post continues the discussion, starting with the implications of front and back office separation.

The history of ‘back office’ and ‘front office’ separation is worth some discussion. According to Seddon, it began with an article by Richard Chase in the Harvard Business Review in 1978. In the article, Chase recommends separating the ‘high customer contact’ and ‘low customer contact’ elements of the service system because of the different operations involved. Low customer contact operations are more efficient and, as a result, have lower costs and it makes sense to isolate them from the disruptive effects of customer interactions if it can be done without sacrificing service effectiveness. However, service effectiveness is exactly what Seddon believes has been lost in many of the cases he cites. Continue reading

27 – Risk farming or good governance? How some executives avoid accountability.

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          400 words

What do I mean by ‘risk farming’? It is the practice of spreading risk around so that your responsibilities become so diffused amongst various individuals and groups that you can’t be held accountable for them. There will always be someone else sharing accountability. So, how is it done?

You start by taking every matter before the Executive. Continue reading