Trees line a straight road leading off into the distance

Future Proofing Councils: organisational change in Australian local government

By Susan Law

There is always that dichotomous cliché: change is the only constant in the world.  As local authorities, Councils are not only part of the world, but, in the key role in providing civic leadership to our communities, Councils find themselves having to flex and adapt themselves to meet the expectations of their communities and to help them make sense of the changing world.

The drivers to change are many. Some are extrinsic to the Council; others are initiated by the organisation itself.

External Drivers

Demographics

Graph showing a declining predicted budget, eclipsed by increasing adult social care and children services expenditureThe Graph of Doom – a graph prepared by the Council the London Borough of Barnet. The chilling lesson from this graph is that by 2021/22, the Council will need to spend all of its funding and revenue on just providing services for its vulnerable adults and children. Without changes to the manner in which services would be delivered and policy settings, there would be no funding for other services such as waste, community development etc.

While Councils in Australia are not charged with the provision of social services for adults and children, the demographic trends for Australia are similar if not sharper.  This impacts upon state governments and reinforces the drive in NSW, South Australia, and Tasmania for local government sector reform. The ability of state governments to significantly contribute to the funding of local government for services is becoming increasingly constrained. In fact, local government is experiencing the reverse: services being devolved from state to local government without the corresponding level of funding to deliver them.

Similarly, Councils’ rate bases and their ability to raise revenue from ratepayers is coming under increasing pressure. In NSW, rate capping by the State Government is in place and is being debated in South Australia and Tasmania.

Customer and community expectations

At the other end of the demographic spectrum are the expectations of our communities and customers. Most services and the way they are delivered were designed for the post WWII and baby boomer generation – now we have Generation X, Y, and Z, whose expectations are quite different from those of their parents and grandparents. Traditional sectors such as the taxi and hotel industries are having to cope with surviving with disruptive technologies and organisations such as Uber and Airbnb. Nevertheless, these disrupters are setting the expectations for access, service, and response. The disruption in many service sectors is causing major re-thinking of service delivery models, even traditionally conservative ones such as banks. Local government cannot step aside from the change. 

State Government and internal programs of reform

In addition to the UK, in NSW and South Australia, pressure has been placed upon local authorities to not just consider change on an individual basis, but also to participate in a broader program of sector reform.

A collection of old fashioned globes in neutral colours

Whizzing to Oz: Global Collaboration on Local Government Reform

LKS Quaero UK Director Aidan Rave recently visited Australia and met with our Australian team. Here are his reflections on the differences and similarities between the UK and Australian local government contexts – and on the value of a global team when it comes to public service reform.

A seven day round trip from the UK to Australia can have a strange effect on the mind. The combination of jet lag, shifting from summer to winter and around 48 hours stuck in a metal tube has an effect on the most seasoned traveller. Making the trip in late June of this year, in the midst of the political upheaval and chaotic post-Brexit vote atmosphere, added a further dimension to the sense of surrealism.

Of course, attending the annual LKS Quaero hui (a Maori term meaning gathering or assembly) was exciting – an opportunity to meet in person colleagues who had previously existed on the end of a phone or as a slightly fuzzy image on Skype. Okay, the opportunity to sample some of McLaren Vale’s finest was probably a factor, too, but a professional should always be prepared to suffer for the cause!

In many ways, the conversation and debate at the hui confirmed a long-held belief that while the structure and culture of local government in the UK and Australia might differ, there are many challenges and opportunities in common and there is much each can learn from the other’s approach. The political spice on the Australian side was enhanced by the fact that day one of the hui coincided with the general election and all the intrigue, upsets, and twists that inevitably ensue (and there were several). Similarly, giving an update from the UK was inevitably going to be dominated by the fall-out from Brexit, the subsequent resignation of the Prime Minister, and impending implosion of the opposition Labour Party. In truth, it all felt just a little bit embarrassing!

While the “big politics” were certainly never far from the group’s collective thoughts, the focus of discussions remained on issues core to the business on both sides of the equator; namely public service reform, restructuring, amalgamation, culture, and leadership.

The impact of the GFC had a more immediate effect on the UK economy and subsequent public spending plans than was the case in Australia. Consequently, shifts towards structural and political reform of councils in the UK, driven in large part by a seismic reduction of around 35% in real terms spending power over the last five years, has meant that the rate of change in the UK has been determined.

Interestingly, as NSW councils embark on their journey of reform, there is some useful UK insight (not to mention a number of mistakes made and hard lessons learned), within the global LKS Quaero knowledge pool that should prove valuable.  In a similar vein, there is a considerable amount of Australian work on systems thinking and leadership, which will be critically important to UK councils as they attempt the next stage of implementation.

A sporting team in English colours huddles together.

How do you create the right culture to succeed?

By David Gourlay

Systems               Symbols               Behaviour           Leadership

Four simple words, but all of them simply have to be “nailed on” to achieve that winning culture!

Sport is always a trusty analogy when it comes to writing about business culture, so let’s consider the fate of two of Rugby’s powerhouses at the Rugby World Cup. As the fallout from England’s World Cup started, Head Coach Stuart Lancaster made no secret of his attempt to emulate New Zealand and his focus on building the right “culture,” on the premise that if you get things right off the pitch the rest will take care of itself… apparently not!

Most of us have worked in businesses that claim to have a great culture, but somehow something isn’t quite right, whether it’s a frustrating process, an outdated finance system, some annoying bureaucracy, or just a general feeling of disquiet around the office. Or maybe the processes and systems have just had a multi-million pound makeover but the frustration is arising from poor leadership or some dominant behaviours within the organisation that are both unproductive and disruptive.

Either way, you have a problem! How often is there a major investment in creating improved and more efficient systems and processes, without an improved culture magically appearing? And how often can you have great leadership and behaviours that are undermined by poor systems and processes?

JKF writing at his desk.

Lessons from Camelot

By Aidan Rave

Ted Sorensen’s seminal biography of JFK, written by the president’s closest and most trusted advisor only a few years after the grim events in Dallas in November 1963, offers a rare and unique insight into the workings of the presidency that came to be known as ‘Camelot’.

Of particular interest is a chapter devoted to the period of transition between Kennedy’s election victory in November 1960 and his inauguration and formal assumption of office in January 1961. During these three frenetic months, Sorenson describes how over a thousand government posts were filled, ranging from key cabinet positions through to junior advisors.

Each post needed to be balanced against the oft-competing demands of politics and the effective administration of the executive branch, requiring the recruitment team to know when to compromise and when to expend political capital and remain steadfast in the face of opposition. Despite the many challenges – US politics was no less partisan back in the 1960s than it is now – there is a clear sense throughout that Sorenson and his team were recruiting against a mission underpinned by a successful election campaign, subsequently set out so eloquently in Kennedy’s inaugural address.

Each appointment, be it political or administrative, was governed by an unambiguous credo. Even appointments that were intensely political in nature were still ultimately made to contribute to this overall purpose. There was also a palpable sense that the assembling of a new administration was in preparation for the work to come and not an end in itself, given that nothing was “real” until the formal handover in late January.

Contrast this with the nature of Organisational Development frequently observed in so many modern-day organisations. Too often, the ubiquitous “organisational restructure” is undertaken in a ritualistic manner based on the arrival of a new chief executive or in response to a crisis or opportunity rather than in response to a clear mission and ‘to do’ list.