213 – What insight does the capability review of one council and the sacking of another give you into local government culture in Victoria?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         1500 words

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Two interesting reports have been published in Victoria in the last 12 months – the Organisational Capability Review of Melbourne City Council in May 2015 and the more recent Commission of Inquiry Report into Greater Geelong City Council, released in March 2016. Each report provides an insight into local government culture.

As someone who has worked at three Victorian councils in the last 10 years, and who corresponds regularly with people working at another half a dozen councils, the insight is not surprising.  It reveals a deep malaise in the sector that has root causes in the political system, the ways our leaders are appointed, and general organisational leadership capability.

To begin, what are the discoveries in these two reviews of major Victorian councils? Continue reading

210 – Is innovation over-rated in local government?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                         1100 words

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I was recently reading an article in Aeon magazine entitled ‘Hail the maintainers’. The central idea is that ‘capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more’. I think you could replace ‘capitalism’ with ‘local government’, although I am not sure that we are excelling. We are certainly preoccupied with trying to be innovative (or at least being seen to be innovative).

The authors, Lee Vinsell and Andrew Russell, believe that innovation is the dominant ideology of our era. Pursuing innovation has inspired both technologists and capitalists. It has also attracted critics.

“What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives that the vast majority of technological innovations. “

The idea that local government must be more innovative reflects the willing (and often mindless) adoption of populist ideas from the private sector by local government.   After all, being innovative is sexier than doing what we have always done but making sure we do it well. Continue reading

206 – ‘The Outstanding Organisation’ by Karen Martin.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                         870 words

the outstanding organisation

This is a forthright and practical book full of inconvenient truths for local government. I suppose its relevance to local government depends on whether or not you believe that becoming an outstanding organisation is either possible or desirable. Karen Martin says that people know excellence when they see it and they know when they are not excellent. But do our leaders in local government?

This is another book (and I am repeating myself here) that everyone reading it who works in local government will wish they had read years ago. The key idea is that it is chaos that prevents organisations from becoming excellent. Martin says that managers and workers often don’t see the chaos or its causes. In many cases the behaviour causing the chaos is habitual and invisible. Typically, she says organisations respond to chaos by:

  • Becoming accustomed to it so that they think it is normal.
  • Recognising it but thinking that there is nothing that can be done about it.
  • Embracing it as a good thing and developing skills in coping with it.

Councils do all three to a greater or lesser extent. Continue reading

205 – ‘We don’t need to be clever – just less stupid’, The Age 23 February 2016.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         700 words

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I read this article and though it was fortunate that the writer, author and polymath Satyajit Das, hadn’t been dealing with his council. No doubt a greater attempt would have been made to feign ‘one stop’ service but if it was anything but a simple matter, he would have come across the same dysfunction. His acuity is evident in his analysis.

Das’s dealings with his bank highlighted how the quest for efficiency and lower costs has achieved the opposite result. This is a recurring theme in the writings of John Seddon about the public sector. Das lists six sources of ‘unproductive and inefficient’ failures that he believes are now common in many organisations.

  1. Tasks have been fragmented across different locations and the simplest activity is now complicated.
  2. There is no continuity. ‘One person is not accountable for the complete activity. Workers lack any idea of how what they are doing, or not doing, affects the whole process overall’.
  3. Staff lack the skills and knowledge required.
  4. Performance measurement has lowered, rather than improved, performance. Staff actions detract from results instead of helping achieve them.
  5. Leadership is lacking in ‘domain knowledge’ (i.e. valid knowledge in a particular area).
  6. There is a tendency to see history as old and irrelevant. The latest technological wizardry is the best solution to any problem. Valuable lessons from the past are routinely ignored.

There have been a number of posts on these very topics. Continue reading

203 – ‘Systems Thinking for Social Change’ by David Peter Stroh.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                                         950 words

systems thinking for social chnage

The subtitle of this book says it all – ‘A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results’.   Every so often you pick up a book and it provides answers to problems that you and thousands of others grapple with every day. This is one of those books.   David Stroh co-founded ‘Innovation Associates’ with Peter Senge, who later wrote the management classic ‘The Fifth Discipline’. Both are proponents of systems thinking. The premise of this book is that ‘applying systems thinking principles and tools enables you to achieve better results with fewer resources in more lasting ways’. Wow.

Stroh uses detailed, real-world examples to make his case. His ‘systems stories’ explain how people can improve performance by shifting from just trying to optimise their part of the system, to improving the relationships between all parts of the system.   The systems stories start with seeing the big picture.

It is often the case in local government that people focus mainly on their functional responsibilities and either fail to see connections to the work of others, or they are not interested. Life is simpler when achievable goals can be set and complexity is overlooked. Putting the effort in to understanding the whole system is seldom rewarded. Local government is epitomised by sayings like ‘keep it simple’, ‘look for quick wins’, and ‘pick the low hanging fruit’.

In contrast, Stroh uses the ancient Indian story of the blind men and the elephant to illustrate the importance of the big picture. Continue reading

181 – Applying the public value concept in local government using systems thinking

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         1100 words

dominoes

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Systems thinking is potentially a great lever for improvements in the design and delivery of local government services. However, it will require a major shift in thinking about how work is designed and managed because the systems thinker is focussed on the purpose of a service from the customer’s point of view.   This is a change from the needs of the organisation and the people working in it driving the design of work and delivery of services. Here are some thoughts building on the earlier post by Parkinson.

Local government needs to work harder to put the needs of customers first despite the realities of multiple and conflicting accountabilities, limited potential for increased income from rates, difficulty defining who the customer is, and increasing expectations of service levels, reliability and speed.

The principal focus of systems thinking is designing and managing the organisation with the customer mind. Continue reading

178 – The Prime Minister’s mini summit – is there a lesson for local government leaders?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                                         500 words

malcolm turnbull

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Some time ago, I posted on what I would do if I was the CEO. This post is in a similar vein.

The new Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called a mini summit last week and invited leaders from the worlds of business, unions, community organisations and think tanks to discuss the state of the economy and the best way forward for economic reforms.

Reporting about the planned summit reflected the openness of the new national leader to discussing ideas other than his own. It was a move that his predecessor failed to make. The Sydney Morning Herald described the summit as suggesting that the new Prime Minister is keen to discuss big ideas and ‘send a message of creative optimism’ to the leaders invited. The Prime Minister is quoted as saying that the summit is a ‘rare opportunity to achieve consensus on the most pressing economic and social issues’ facing the country.

I am not sure whether the summit reached consensus or whether it will really influence government thinking and action. It has certainly signalled a new approach by Malcolm Turnbull.

It occurred to me that local government leaders could take a similar approach. Continue reading