24 – High performance in local government. Part 2 – How can you make it happen?

In Part 1 I talked about what a high performing local government organisation could look like. In this post I look at how you can improve performance to become high performing. Change management is a buzz phrase in local government at the moment. Everyone in leadership seems to accept that there is a need for change but they can’t agree on how to do it.

Frank Ostroff has some good advice for change agents in the public sector. He says that sustained performance improvement isn’t hampered by failure to identify solutions; indeed, he suggests they are often straightforward. In Part 1 made a list of 24 actions that you could start with to create a high performance local government organisation. Why not just implement them? Part of the answer lies in what Ostroff describes as the four unique obstacles to change in public services.

  1. Leaders are not appointed on the basis of their commitment or experience in reform. Instead, they are appointed for their ‘command of policy, technical expertise or political connections’.
  2. Leaders are appointed for relatively short periods and have limited time to see reforms through to conclusion. Therefore, they tend to focus on quick policy reforms.
  3. Rules covering activities such as procurement, personnel, and budgeting put in place to prevent wrong-doing have made government inflexible. The penalties for failure are also greater than the rewards for exceptional performance.
  4. Everyone has a rightful stake in government activities. Almost any reform is likely to meet with resistance.

I know he is talking about government in the US, and there are some significant differences in Victorian local government. But there are also strong similarities. His four obstacles are just as prevalent, even if it is for some different reasons.

Ostroff provides some insights into the characteristics of successful public service reforms. He describes five principles and illustrates them in some detail with cases. His first principle is to ‘improve performance against mission’. This resonates with the work of Mark Moore about the creation of public value. As with Moore, he says that the mission should be the focus. Improvement in performance achieving the mission (i.e. creating the required public value) needs to be the fundamental objective of the reform program. This makes a lot of sense in local government, where the ‘why’ often becomes unclear or generic.

His second principle is to ‘win over stakeholders’. This is important within and outside your organisation to create a broad support base for reform. His third principle is to ‘create a roadmap for reform’. He suggests three phases; identify performance objectives; set priorities; and roll out the program. It is essential to formulate a vision and set a clear path for reform.

The fourth principle is to take a comprehensive approach. He relates reform to organisational redesign involving integration and alignment of leadership, structure, processes, infrastructure, people and performance management. This concurs with Rummler and Brache and their thinking about the ‘infrastructure’ required for sustained performance improvement, as opposed to episodic campaigns. This involves seeing the organisation vertically and horizontally. They talk about the various levels of an organisation (vertical) and the performance needs (horizontal). I have reproduced their ‘nine performance variables’ diagram below.

the 9 performance variables

The performance needs must be met by the organisational leadership to ensure that work flows smoothly across boundaries. I think that taking a comprehensive approach is particularly good advice for local government, which seems to naturally form silos based on disciplines or functions. Failure to integrate or align is often the reason that reform is necessary.

The last principle is about the importance of being a leader, not a bureaucrat. Ostroff believes that public service managers are inherently respectful of barriers and may hesitate to remove them. There needs to be a readiness to demolish barriers to reform. He says that they are also likely to have to establish trust and demonstrate their sincerity. The failure of successive reforms often leads to cynicism, which needs to be overcome.

Ostroff cautions of the need to be aware of present realities, respect the complexity of what you are trying to do, and to hold people accountable for both results and their commitment to the reform effort. These are key points for local government reform. Present realities include organisational culture and its resistance to change. The complexity inherent in local government activities presents special challenges during a period of reform. Finally, the lack of effort to measure performance and use results to improve seems to be a hallmark of local government. In a reform process there must be accountability if it is to endure once the reform has been implemented.

In a nutshell, formulate your vision, take your present situation into account, seek the support of your stakeholders, set a clear path, be mindful of the complexity in what you are doing, and hold people accountable. Good luck.

Lancing Farrell

Ostroff, Frank   2006. Change Management in Government, in Harvard Business Review, May.

Rummler, Geary A., and Brache, Alan P. 1995. Improving Performance – How to Manage the White Space on the Organisation Chart.


17 – Interested in local government management? Four books you should read and why. Part 2

This post continues my discussion about the books that I discovered in 2014 that I think should influence management in local government.

3. Improving Performance – How to Manage the White Space on the Organisation Chart by Geary A. Rummler and Alan P. Brache. Published in 1995, this book is quite different to the other two books recommended. It is not about the public sector and it is a hard core management book. The authors have developed a way of thinking about organisations and their performance that is very relevant to local government. Topics covered include managing processes and organisations as systems, linking performance to strategy, redesigning processes, and designing a performance measurement system.

Rummler and Brache apply their systems view by discussing the interdependence of nine performance variables shown in the diagram below.

the 9 performance variables

The levels of performance and the performance needs are described:

  • Organisation level – the organisational strategy, goals, and organisational structure.
  • Process level – how work flows across functions in the organisational structure.
  • Job/performer level – the people doing the work in processes.
  • Goals – the customer’s expectations of service quality, quantity, timeliness or cost, etc.
  • Design – of the organisation, processes and jobs to achieve the goals.
  • Management – the practices in place to ensure goals are current and being achieved.

It is a simple and powerful way to think about organisations vertically and horizontally. In a diverse organisation like local government, understanding the performance variables is critical to improving cross-functional services and reducing the ‘silo effect’ in which functional goals are put ahead of the goals of processes that deliver services to customers.  Read it if you are interested in cross functional processes and improving service delivery.

4. The Leaders Handbook by Peter R. Scholtes. Published in 1998, this book is also a serious management text. Written in an engaging way with lots of diagrams and case studies to illustrate points, it is accessible and easily read. So, don’t be put off. For someone who believes in systems thinking, it contains gems, such as this one below written in the context of performance appraisal and why Scholtes believes it isn’t effective;

“Successful work requires having a consistent and reliable set of systems, processes, and methods by which you and your people design, develop, and deliver what the customers need when and how the customers need it. Systems are created, sustained, and improved by insightful and interactive work on the system, not by using carrots and sticks. Measurable goals do not improve systems. Improving systems improves systems (p.303).”

Chapters cover a wide range of topics including, systems thinking; giving meaning, purpose, direction and focus to work; leading by asking good questions; and performance without appraisal. It is clear that Scholtes (a colleague of W. Edwards Deming) values systems and statistical thinking, relations with people, and learning to master improvement. He sees organisations as ‘complex systems of social networks and technical processes in which simplistic approaches will not help resolve complex problems’. He identifies 6 leadership competencies:

  1. Systems thinking – understanding the difference between systems and structure or policy; and seeking systemic causes, not culprits.
  2. Variability at work – knowing the difference between common cause and special causes of variation.
  3. Learning – understanding when a statement is theory or opinion versus fact, and acting accordingly; and knowing the difference between change and improvement.
  4. Psychology and human behaviour – understanding and applying the concepts of internal versus external motivation and demotivation.
  5. Interactions – seeing the interdependencies between systems thinking, variation, learning and human behaviour.
  6. Vision, meaning, direction and focus – providing clarity of purpose and developing and continuously communicating a clear sense of direction and focus.

Scholtes sets out a new paradigm for leadership for complex socio-technical systems.  Local government, with its political and organisational challenges, is nothing if not complex (as discussed in post 3).

I challenge you to read these books and then decide whether you think about your organisation as a system and if it is really focussed on creating public value by fulfilling customer-defined purpose through effective and efficient processes where variation is understood and performance is measured.

Lancing Farrell

5 – Local government services. How to define them?

In the last of this series of posts on services (see posts 2 and 3), I discuss ways to define services. The complexity described in the previous post will be evident here too. Unfortunately, nothing in local government is as simple as it could or should be.

You often hear councils described as ‘service organisations’ or being in the ‘service business’. As previously discussed, one of the main reasons local government exists is to ensure that a wide range of services are available to a community. This often means that the council delivers those services. What you don’t often hear about is a concise description of those services, a ‘service catalogue’ if you like. A list of services that helps everyone to understand what services the organisation will provide (and by implication, what services it will not provide). Knowing this should be a key element of organisational strategy (along with who are or are not customers, and how services will be provided efficiently).

Defining services should be straightforward. After all, we are delivering them every day and, in most cases, have been doing so for many years. In Victoria, councils are being asked to define services as part of a sector-wide asset management improvement program. A simple survey of councils revealed very different ideas about what constitutes a service. One council said that it had about 20 services, each defined by a department of the council. Another said that it had about 40 services, each defined by a unit within the council organisational structure (typically several units will form a department). A third council said that it had over 300 services, each defined by a cost centre in the council budget. The assumption seems to be that the organisational structure or budget defines services. This is expedient, but have they really defined services?

The Australian Centre for Excellence in Local Government conducted a review of service delivery reviews in 2012. They found that the ‘interpretation of the term ‘service’ for the purpose of reviews varied considerably between councils. Some councils defined services at a broad level and selected about 40 service groups or packages. Others broke them down into as many as 200 to audit and analyse their services at a detailed level’. Most councils differentiated between services to internal and external customers, and between those required to be provided due to a statutory obligation from those where there was discretion over provision. No criteria for defining services were identified in the report.

Geary Rummler and Alan Brache say that the work flow across functional boundaries is ‘how work gets done’. They contend that organisations produce their outputs through numerous cross functional work processes. If that is the case, then services are cross functional processes. Defining them according to functions is unlikely to be accurate.

I think that a useful definition of a service in local government is ‘an ‘end to end’ process that delivers an output to an identified customer’. The service could be part of a set of services that combine to deliver an output or outcome, which is probably better described as a value chain.

There are challenges in defining services as value chains or cross functional processes. To begin with, it challenges conventional thinking about how local government organisations work. Traditional power bases can be threatened if one disciplinary group no longer has control over a service. There will be a need for customer-focussed and process driven performance measures that are aligned with measures of the contributions of functions to the service. Rummler and Brache suggest appointing process owners, who they describe as the conscience, evaluator and champion of a process.

Thinking of services as processes will require fundamental changes in the way the organisation operates but it is more likely to result in high performance in service delivery.

Lancing Farrell

Australian Centre for Local Government Excellence 2012. Service delivery reviews in Australian local government.

Rummler, Geary A., and Brache, Alan P. 1995. Improving Performance – How to Manage the White Space on the Organisation Chart.

3 – Local government and complexity. Is there a simple explanation?

The last post talked about why services are offered by local government and some ideas relevant to determining what should be offered. That whole post may have seemed like an over simplification. After all, if it was that simple, each local government would have a list of the services they offer and it would be straightforward to communicate to the community which services will or won’t be offered. In practice, it is not that easy to be definite about the services available because almost any service request will be considered and councils are reluctant to say no.

This post is an effort to explain why that is so by discussing the complexity that exists in public services. For some of the ideas I acknowledge posts on the blog site ‘Flip Chart Fairy Tales’.

To begin with, services are complicated by the involvement of end users (customers) in the delivery process. Customers are not consuming something that has been made earlier. They play a voluntary and virtually uncontrollable role in producing a service. And, every customer has different needs and preferences. Therefore, processes for service delivery are not as predictable and controllable as they are in activities such as manufacturing. Despite this, many of the theories and methods for productivity improvement used in local government come from manufacturing. For example, lean.

Next, because of the nature of services, it is easier to measure cost than quality and it is more difficult to make productivity improvements than in manufacturing. Service quality is subjective and depends on the perceptions of the customer. As a result, it can be difficult to tell whether a reduction in cost has led to a reduction in quality. The cost-cutting programs so common in local government often wreak havoc on service quality but it goes unnoticed or unmeasured. In comparison, in the private sector, service businesses have a fail-safe measure of performance – their customers will leave if the quality drops. In public services that are free at the point of consumption and where there is little or no choice of provider, this measure is not available.

Public sector organisations also have to deliver services to whoever comes through the door. Price is not a ‘gatekeeper’ for access to services. And, the people receiving services can come from all parts of society and may have limited education and language skills, making their impact on the service delivery process more significant. Customers introduce variability that complicates service delivery.

Frances Frei describes five types of variability introduced by customers:

  1. They want a service when it suits them.
  2. They can ask for a range of services.
  3. They vary in their ability to do what they need to do in order to receive a service.
  4. They will expend varying degrees of effort to get a service.
  5. They have different opinions about what it means to be treated well.

This adds complexity and unpredictability to delivering services and public service organisations often respond by trying to standardise processes to reduce costs and improve productivity. In practice, this often means ‘designing out’ the source of complexity, i.e. the customer. In public services, the process of standardising service delivery can lead to ‘failure demand’ and increased costs.

John Seddon describes failure demand as ‘demand caused by a failure to do something or do something right for a customer’. It is a particular problem for public services. Because services are free at the point of consumption, if needs are not met people are easily able to re-present or escalate their request, which creates extra demand and increases costs. For example, Seddon estimated that more than 80% of the demand in a health and social care system in the UK was failure demand and that it took 400 hours of work to create 100 hours of value. This may be an extreme example, but it highlights the potential.

The workings of public services are further complicated by the environment in which they operate. It is harder to nail down strategic goals and specific measures for public sector organisations. Local governments often have difficulty defining and measuring what they actually exist to do. That is why their mission statements can seem so nebulous and public value can be so hard to define. Then there are the numerous obstacles to change, including complexity, political resistance, cultural resistance, size and scope, and lack of experience managing change. Improving productivity is difficult and transformational change processes are common.

Restructures seem to follow every change of CEO. Functions are re-assigned and re-named. However, costs are incurred in the processes for delivering services and significant efficiency savings can only be made by improving the way the service delivery processes operate. Geary Rummler and Alan Brache say that an organisation is only as good as its processes and that process improvement presents the greatest improvement opportunity for most organisations. However, improving processes can require a lot of detailed work and knowledge about work flows. Change is more likely to involve ‘incremental adjustment’, which takes more time and effort than the career plans for many executive will allow.

Finally, it is impossible to separate public services from politics. This is perhaps more true in local government where the politicians are highly accountable to their constituents. The competing financial, social and policy objectives can make decision-making much more complex than in the private sector.

Lancing Farell

Flip Chart Fairy Tales. https://flipchartfairytales.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/why-is-the-public-sector-so-complex

Frei, Francis X. 2006. Breaking the Trade-Off between Efficiency and Service. Harvard Business Review, November.

Rummler, Geary A., and Brache, Alan P. 1995. Improving Performance – How to Manage the White Space on the Organisation Chart.

Seddon, John 2014. The Whitehall Effect.