The Future of Local Organisational Structures

Recently published in the MJ

Up to now the structure of authorities has been largely prescribed by statute or convention.  Although there is more variety at District Level, top-tier authorities have remarkably common structures, often driven by the existence of certain statutory roles, not least the Director of Children’s Services.

That is already beginning to change.  Joint appointments with Health, eg where the Director of Adult Social care may also be the Chief Executive of the PCT, shared chief executives, and some authorities with a combined DCS/Adult Services role … all of these are starting to demonstrate variety.

Local Government will soon be faced with genuine choices about how it organises – not just within the local authority, but also how its “local public service conglomerate” will organise.  Some localities will be successful in drawing down resources and responsibilities previously managed centrally.  Shared services – both front and back office – will roll out with very many different models.

The Private Sector has faced the challenge of considerable variety in how conglomerates organise for decades.  Whilst comparisons with the Private Sector only work up to a point, there are tools and concepts that exist there that seem relevant to us.  One such is the so-called “Parenting Advantage” by Goold and Campbell.  This concept invites organisations to be very precise about the value that is added by each upper layer of hierarchy, and postulates different models of organisation, arguing that the model needs to be aligned with the industry and the market context.

Total Place and the apparatus that goes with it appears to be encouraging further local consolidation, creating local public sector conglomerates which will need to be structured and managed, and it is possible to envisage health, councils, and policing coming closer together – just as social care, highways, and schools have been, under the local authority umbrella.  This poses a fascinating question of where the “Centre” is in the public sector conglomerate.  Councils are put into a primus inter pares position by virtue of their democratic accountability, but are they resourced for a wider role, and can you really run a conglomerate from one of its operating divisions?

At the same time the rhetoric, and for some councils an emerging reality, is one of extreme delegation to micro-localities – “you have a budget, spend it as you wish on your local priorities”.  This is associated with a highly unstrategic conglomerate model.  Schools, for example, are told that they are autonomous with their own budgets, which is fine, but very different from the conglomerate model implied by the reporting regime, and different again from the conglomerate model underlying the children’s trust agenda which is at the highest level of parenting advantage sophistication.

The reason why this matters is because the Goold and Campbell insights show that there is no ”best” model as such.  However businesses which use the model most appropriate to their industry and circumstances do better.  And a model is about much more than structures – it is about information flows, people development, the role of the Centre, the culture of the organisation, and how performance is managed.  These all need to be aligned with each other, and with the model for the organisation.  Conflicting models will cause problems which need to be managed, especially if they all exist within the same conglomerate.

The public sector faces complexities and interdependencies undreamt of by corporate strategists.  The “Parenting Advantage” model is not right for the public sector, but it serves as a starting point and encourages us to realise that we are allowed to think about this and to make deliberate choices.  Moreover, we must.  There is a new book to be written, and the next decade will write it.

Holiday Notes

A wonderful week in San Francisco followed by an awe-inspiring week in Arizona, and then a longer spell at an airport hotel in Los Angeles waiting to come home….

A mixed bag of thoughts that struck me at various points and which I feel oddly compelled to scatter:
1.  San Francisco is a friendly and attractive mechanism for converting sourdough bread into calf muscles.

2.  Starfish, which look incredibly inert from above are very active when you see them from underneath. Jellyfish are beautiful and deeply alien.

3.  California has a curious relationship with climate change epitomised  by the california academy of sciences. A very modern building with a  green “living roof”, strident displays warning of climate change – and gas patio heaters outside the cafe!

4.  Route 66 in Arizona has a disgraceful amount of litter by the side of it.  But the coincidence of coming into Seligman just as the Cars, the Motion Picture Soundtrack got to Our Town was just perfect, and touching.

5a. The Grand Canyon is both.

5b. The first time I saw the Grand Canyon it was so big and unusual that I couldn’t initially process it as a 3D image – it looked painted on.  When I did adjust for the diminished parallax it was truly awe-inspiring.  Definitely didn’t disappoint.  Gazing at its incessant detail I was reminded of the moment in September 1986 when I first saw Mandelbrot set images.  In a reflective moment of thinking how a river had carved this over millions of years I suddenly realised that it was less than 2% of the age of the Earth and had a “total perspective vortex” moment.

5c. There are worse places to be than the Grand Canyon at sunset.

6.  On a train journey a fellow passenger was wearing a baseball cap with the legend “World War 2 Veteran.  Battle of the Bulge” and staff members on the train and others would occasionally say to him “thank you for your service”.  I really can’t get my head straight on what I think about this.

7.  Arizona is a lot greener than I expected, though coming back to the UK I thought my eyes had a different colour filter on.  Also struck by how colourful UK currency is!

8.  On the subject of green, Wrigleys spearmint gum has changed colour since I was a boy, although I suppose it may always have been green in the US.

9.  Geology is much more interesting when its more extreme aspects are in your face or under your feet (or in the atmosphere potentially stopping you from getting home).

10.  Hypothesis: tessellated triangles are used for decoration by all cultures – human and otherwise!

11.  The paintings that captured my attention were this one and this one (why all the jugs, pots and other receptacles – must look into the symbolism of that).

12.  Neuroscience’s application to public policy is almost certainly at the level of metaphor or a repetition of evolution-based thinking rather than a direct insight. The possible exception being in relation to education policy.

13.  Disneyland broke through my cynical carapace within the first 100 seconds, but fortunately the omnipresence of retail helped me to reassemble it before we left.

14. United Airlines customer service is very good – even under pressure.