215 – From the Archive: Creative ways to make your capital expenditure target. Some ideas.

Posted by Whistler                                                                          570 words

capital expenditure graph

Originally posted 20 April 2015

Yes, it is that time of the year when our engineers and accountants become highly creative.   By June 30 they will need to explain whether or not the targeted amount of capital works has been completed. Often the target is expressed as simply as ‘90% capital program completed’. Usually it is a KPI for the CEO and senior managers. That makes it an important target.

So, why the need for such high levels of creativity?

Delivering 90% of the planned capital works is harder than it sounds. Many councils would have averaged around 60% to 70% over the last ten years. This is partially explained by growth in capital expenditure that has exceeded the organisational capacity to deliver. Another part of the explanation is that capital works programs have become more diverse with more people participating in the planning and delivery across the council. As a result, projects have become more complex and people with inadequate project management skills are often involved.   Finally, councillors have become much more involved and the capital works program will now have projects that councillors, sometimes in response to community submissions to the budget process, have included – often at the last minute.

As the capital works program has grown, become more complex, involved more people with less skills, and started to include projects without adequate pre-planning or feasibility analysis, especially if they require community engagement, it has become much more difficult to deliver the whole program. But the target remains.

This is where the creativity occurs. Continue reading

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214 – Worried about pretend managing? More importantly, are you dealing with real or imagined work?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                                          300 words

imagined work

Colin Weatherby has made some interesting points in writing about pretend managing. A colleague recently reminded me of another important idea – there are two kinds of work in any workplace: the imagined and the real.

He was discussing his work in injury prevention in the workplace. In his interactions with injured workers and their managers he has observed that there are two types of work. The imagined work exists in the minds of the managers making decisions about what and how workers will do their work.

When discussing worker’s injuries with managers, the managers frequently describe their understanding of the work and how it happens. This is imaginary work because usually they have not done the work. Some have not even studied the work. They are in charge of the work being performed and believe they know what is going on.

In comparison, the real work is what injured workers describe. It is how they actually do the work. It includes the short cuts and workarounds that are not in any Safe Work Method Statements. It is what they know from doing the work every day.

It is important for managers to know that there are two types of work and that there is a difference.

If managers operate as though their understanding of work is accurate and complete they will make mistakes. And, according to my colleague, workers will continue to be injured. Recognising that there is real work, and that it is important to understand exactly how it operates, is essential. Organisations need ways for the two types of work to come together. The Service Action Plans described in an earlier post is one way for this to happen.

There is no doubt that pretend managers are a problem. But a pretend manager dealing with imagined work is potentially a much bigger one.

212 – How do you know if you work for (or if you are) a pretend manager?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                                          1200 words

pretend manager

Have you ever wondered if your manager is for real? Have you ever wondered what they do all day? Has their contribution to work been difficult to see? Maybe you have a pretend manager.

No, this is not a manager bashing exercise. As a long-term local government manager, I respect the effort put in by many of my colleagues. But there are some managers who are just not up to it. And they are not always managers.

Lancing Farrell discussed an interesting book in the last post. I also took a trip down memory lane and re-read parts of The Third Principle. Neville Lake is a practical, perceptive and prescient person. I just love alliteration. His chapter on optimising managers, highlighted by Lancing Farrell, reads as though he looked into the future to see the local government of today. In particular, the sections on eliminating pretend managers and pretend managing resonated with me.

To optimise managers, Lake says you need to eliminate pretend managing and pretend managers.

To start with, Lake says to look for the managers who think their job is to go through the motions of managing and just tick off boxes. Continue reading

204 – Rate capping: an update.

Posted by Whistler                                                                         900 words

service brainstorming 2

It has been some time since discussions commenced regarding the imposition of a rate cap on local government in Victoria. There have been a few earlier posts on the topic (see here, here, here, here and here). The rate cap has now been set and the process for any council seeking an exemption from the rate cap has been communicated. The Essential Services Commission has been effectively positioned as a regulator for local government. So what have councils been doing?

I would say not much. The requirement that the community support must be demonstrated if seeking an exemption, coupled with 2016 being an election year, has stifled activity across the sector. According to The Age newspaper 21 councils have indicated they may apply for an exemption. Some councils, including Melbourne City Council, have attempted to demonstrate community support for their rating strategy, which could support an application for an exemption from the cap.

The results from the few people’s panels held have been interesting but not unexpected. The community expects the council to use current resources well before asking for more. They want to see value for money before they will support asking people to pay more tax. Fair enough. Continue reading

201 – A response to Essay No. 4 – Local government and customer service.

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          250 words

direct action

Lancing Farrell has written an engaging essay that reveals many home-truths in customer service in local government. It is a bit on the long side but worth the effort to read. I have a few comments to make about what I think you can do to act on the ideas.

To begin, make a list of the services offered and who can receive them. Some councils call this a service catalogue. It doesn’t matter what you call it, make it. Once you have this list your strategy is becoming explicit. The choices made in developing the list reflect the strategy of the organisation in delivering services. For many councils, this will formalise custom and practice.

Next, re-design the systems for customer service so that there are fewer escalations and fewer requests channelled through councillors. It is expensive to handle normal service requests through a ‘councillor request’ system that has been designed to provide high level information to support councillors in decision making.  Improve website information, online payment, and online service requests.  Manage expectations and make services as convenient as possible.

Then, train and support Customer Service Officers in understanding the different capacities in which people present and to separate (and manage) private and public value expectations. This is easier than it sounds. Telephony companies do something similar when they train customer service staff to identify different customer types and to then treat them differently according to their characteristics. They even have special names for each type of customer.

Lastly, re-design services to ensure customers get what they need and that the value is visible.

193 – ‘Losing my importance’ (with apologies to R.E.M).

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          350 words

feather duster

I was talking with a colleague recently about a matter that I believed was important that wasn’t being addressed and my thoughts on why this was happening. He made a salient comment – the longer resolution is delayed, the less important the matter becomes. Over time it will lose its importance. 

How often have you heard people say ‘if it was important, it would have been done by now’. Working in local government is a constant battle between the urgent and the important, and finding out what is really both urgent and important. Social media has injected a definite sense of urgency into political problems, but are they really important?

I have often wondered why managers have such difficulty seeing the difference. The following matrix can be a helpful way to focus your attention.

important and urgent matrix

If a distant fire front is left burning it is understandable if it ceases to become important. Either people become accustomed to it or they don’t see the need for action. Far more attention is generated by the spot fires started by embers from the fire front and generating lots of busy work. They are usually at your feet and visible to everyone and there is immediate heat if they are left unattended.

In comparison, better planning and decision making is always deferred when distractions present themselves. I know many managers whose daily work is driven by the emails that they receive throughout the day – they continually scan their inbox for the next thing to do.  It is easier than getting their minds around the hard stuff of management.

On the flip side, I once had an experience when I was the acting Group Manager and I was unsure of the importance of a document I had received. I asked the Personal Assistant to the Group Manager whether or not she knew if the document was important. Her response was an insight into her 20 years as a personal assistant to Group Managers. She said ‘that’s your job – make it important’. So I walked down the hall and handed it to a manager and asked him to act on it.

Instant importance.

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.