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

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25 – Budgeting in local government. Is it capex, opex or a new initiative?

It is budget time again. In conjunction with ‘planning time’ (see posts 11 and 12) councils are starting to compile their proposed budgets for 2015/16. Capital bids are being evaluated to determine ‘logistically’ whether they can be completed within the financial year and ‘strategically’ whether or not they should proceed. Recurrent budgets are being submitted by managers, either built from a zero base or simply last year’s budget with the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increase. Councils will be comparing the amounts requested with the estimates in the long term financial plan to see whether they match. So where is the problem?

What if you have had growth in demands for services? Service levels may have to be increased in response to community needs. More services may be needed to cater for population growth. What if you have had significant increase in the number of assets to be maintained and renewed? More parks, more roads, more buildings. Somewhere in between the funding available for capital and recurrent budgets sits the ‘new initiative’ (NI) funding that is set aside for budget or staff increases in the recurrent budget. Councils know that costs can increase by more than CPI. They just don’t cope with it very well.

For starters, the amount available for NI’s is usually inadequate and is over bid by the organisation.  It is not unusual for $1 million to be available and for bids to add up to $3 million or more. When this happens there are often no predetermined criteria for prioritising amongst the bids. The orderliness of the budget process then comes under pressure. When criteria are developed, they struggle to effectively assign priorities. How do you decide whether expenditure to mitigate risks or increase compliance is more important than making efficiency or performance improvements to existing services? What about investment in developing new and better services now and for the future?

As you can imagine, local government will tend to eliminate risk. So the first category of NI’s are usually funded. Councils also like to satisfy the community, so improvements to services the community says are important but performing below expectations, will also be funded if at all possible. The last priority to be funded, unless there is a political imperative, is new and better services. This correlates with one of Christopher Stone’s findings in his report False Economies – unpacking public sector efficiency, that ‘two significant barriers to public sector innovation are an overly risk averse orientation within organisations, and a lack of resources invested in developing and implementing innovative ideas’. The whole process is hardly a sure-fire way to ensure that the available financial resources are allocated in the way that best meets community needs now or in the future.

Part of the solution lies in a better planning process that actively considers the relative benefits from investment in risk reduction, service improvement or new services. In a business balancing these considerations is essential. Owners and managers must ensure that there is sufficient investment in compliance, and satisfying customer needs, and developing new services for the future. Why not local government?

Posted by Whistler

Stone, Christopher, 2014. ‘False Economies – unpacking public sector efficiency’.

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