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.