What became of the broken hearted?

There was a really good session at the Public Sector Launchpad (#pslaunchpad) last night (5th November 2013) and this blog is about one tiny offshoot of one of the conversations.

The conversation was about resistance to change in organisations.  A young and enthusiastic local government worker was discussing the difficulties of getting a long-term workforce to change.  It reminded me of a situation earlier on in my career when I encountered a similar situation, and the comments I made last night seemed to strike a chord so I thought I’d write a short blog to share it.

As a starting point in analysis I find it helps to accept that everyone is always rational all of the time.  Therefore if someone is resisting a change which is pretty demonstrably good, not only for them and their working practice but also for the service user, then it can be baffling as to why they’re not whole-heartedly engaged.  Some conversations I had helped me to realise that these people were basically “broken-hearted”.

As some point, perhaps early on in their career, they had been engaged in a change process which offered similar benefits and they’d gone for it – full throttle – sacrificed (temporarily) family considerations and worked their socks off to make the change happen, but for whatever reason (change of management, change of political administration, poor implementation) the change hadn’t actually happened, or hadn’t delivered the desired benefit.  This was a real disappointment to them (they were gutted), but when the next such change came along they thought “this time – let’s make that last wasted effort worthwhile after all…” but sadly, and perhaps for a different reason, that intiative failed too.  They lived through a third and fourth, and possibly even more change intiatives and became, basically, broken-hearted – they have been “jilted” by the organisation so many times that there is real pain in committing themselves to another programme which, of course, to the initiator, is perfectly logical and consistent and how could anyone not…

So I thought I’d share that thought.

Obviously, not everyone who is resistant to change is “broken-hearted” in the way I’ve described.  Some of the most change resistant people can be young people who are experiencing a change that is happening to them rather than led by them and for whom this is suddenly the biggest thing in their world.  And in some cases people have other motives for resisting change – but I think that “broken heartedness” can be a useful explanation for some.

What’s the solution?  That depends massively on the specific case and the specific individual.  Talking to people about their past experiences of change can often be really insightful – you may even learn from things that have gone badly (or well) in the past, and you may be able to help people realise that something really has changed or is different this time.  In some cases it may take a couple of years of actual delivery of change to convince people that this time it’s really going to happen.  Sometimes people are so totally jaded that they need a change of scenery and a new role, possibly in another organisation – I am conscious that that sounds like a threat and no doubt it would be perceived that way, but sometimes it’s true.  The solution may be about involving them in a co-designed process (though I suspect that they’ll also have had that before too).  The last category of solution if you have a whole organisaiton like this to deal with is to introduce an external change so significant that people have to react – a merger of authorities, a full-throated implementation of a Commissioning approach, a TUPE transfer to another entity (not necessarily private sector) – may be the kind of intervention that will help lift them to a new stage of change – it depends.


What sort of “no chief executive” are you?

This article was first published in LGC

The growing diversity of local authorities in their local situations makes it very difficult to generalize about local government.  Some are tempted to say that “all councils should always have a chief executive come what may”.  This is quite interesting – clearly there are a number of local authorities currently doing without a formal chief executive and those of us old enough to remember some of the spectacular messes left when this was tried in the past might be tempted to make a general comment, but we shouldn’t.  We’re at a stage where we need to learn from the diversity of examples in many local authorities, whether that relates to the chief executive model or any other area of innovation.

These are some questions I ask when confronted with a council that doesn’t have a chief executive:

  • Who gets the chief executive’s mail?  If something arrives addressed to the chief executive, whether it’s a complaint from a resident or a letter from the secretary of state, who gets it? Is it always the same person? (This incisive test was suggested to me by a thoughtful head of paid service currently working in a “no-CE” council.)
  • Who chairs the corporate board meetings?  If a corporate director is ill or unable to attend work, to whom do they send a message letting them know?
  • Who represents the council at Solace meetings?  Who at interest group meetings eg CCN?
  • Is there one person that others tend to turn to when they want to know how an initiative or an issue sits with the wider narrative of the organisation and its change?
  • Is there one person for whom local partners get grumpy when they don’t turn up for meetings, or if they send someone else instead?
  • Who ensures that opposition groups are briefed on developments, and advises them on their manifestoes coming up to the election?
  • Is there one person who tends always to be up first at staff events?
  • … and who is the “head of the paid service”?

If the same name keeps cropping up then the council has someone who is essentially taking on the chief executive role, so the next question is: are they the council’s most senior officer with the constitutional powers to fulfill their role, whatever their formal title, or specific job description? And if a council doesn’t have someone who consistently comes up in the answers to these questions – then how do they deal with these issues and ensure consistency and clarity?

Recruiting for Commercialism

This article, which appeared under the name of myself and Veredus colleague Evelyn Dougherty, was first published in the MJ

As we travel around the country visiting a diverse range of local authorities it is clear that “commercialism” is on the rise.  We are often asked about the practicalities and pitfalls of recruiting people with commercial backgrounds.  Cross-sector expertise can make a huge difference to authorities, but  fundamental questions need to be asked before the recruitment begins, not when the candidates are in front of a panel, and especially not when the shiny private sector implant has failed to live up to expectations.

Start by understanding why is commercialism important to you? We think there are (broadly) four reasons why authorities want to be more commercial – (1) to generate profit to offset the effect of cuts (2) to change the culture of the organisation in good ways (3) to support becoming a “commissioning council” and lastly (4) to be better able to understand and support business in your place

In terms of generating profit start by checking that everyone is really aligned with this – some authorities are even nervous about the word and use convoluted phrases like “net revenues” or just “income” because the P-word has corrosively negative connotations in the culture.  If this is you then your issues may go deeper than simply the absence of a commercial director type, and it is hard to imagine the whole organisation getting behind an initiative to take on other service providers and win.  Which brings us to another taboo subject – the notion of competition.  A lot of people really like the collaborative nature of public services and it can be deep in an organisation’s psyche, but if you are going to enter a traded service marketplace, say,  then you need to compete and win – there is no prize for second place, only wasted bidding costs.   This also has an impact on what you need to pay to get people – there is no point in recruiting someone to lead your profit generation if they simply get ticks in the person specification boxes but aren’t actually good enough to lead a win.  Moreover you will need to commit council tax-payers money to marketing and business development at a time when you are almost certainly making headline-worthy cuts elsewhere.  We think there is huge potential for authorities to become more commercial, but that aspiration needs to be more than one person deep.

The issue of cultural change is one that we hear quite a lot.  There are many admirable features of good commercial organisations – responsiveness to changing customer needs, quick decision-making, innovation – that many people, often especially elected members, contrast negatively with what they sometimes see in local authorities.   This one needs challenging, thoughtfully.  Public and private organisations exist in a completely different context – local authorities are regulated as monopoly providers of important publicly-funded services – they are hugely scrutinized and accountable, with very high requirements for consultation and with measured, transparent decision making.  There is no “private sector pixie dust” that can completely overcome this.  So the cultural aims are good ones, but realize that achieving them will require fundamental rethinking of the organisation, up to and including Overview and Scrutiny.  Councils that wish to be commercial have an interesting choice about whether to try to create the commercialism from within, or to place it in some kind of arms length body.  It would appear that the arms length route seems to be working better in terms of achieving the commercial objectives, and cultural change within the arms-length folk, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into culture change in the core.

Commercialism is undoubtedly important to commissioning councils.  This is most obviously true on the provider side – the parts of the organisation which are asked to behave as providers, and in many cases to compete and grow their business elsewhere.  However it is also important that the commissioner side is commercially strategic as there may not be well-developed markets for some of the services they wish to commission, so markets may need to be created.   Really smart commissioning will not only lead to service improvement but it can boost the prosperity of the place as a whole, which brings us on to the fourth benefit of commercialism.

Empathising with the needs of local business will be a useful side-effect of greater commercialism.  We often find that well-intentioned council officers don’t seem to understand the impact on small businesses of cashflow – we have seen big procurements split into small lot sizes in the hope that this will attract small local business – but the duration of the procurement and transition phases have such high up-front cost requirements against an uncertain return that no entrepreneur could risk it, and they might not be able to afford it even if they knew they were going to win.

Once you are clear about the nature of commercialism in your authority and what you are seeking to achieve the recruitment will become much easier.  In our experience there are many well qualified folk in the private sector who would actively enjoy working in the public sector (though there are also an annoying number of people who think it’ll be an easy life).  Recognise that you may need to find ways of being creative about salary, or finding other benefits that someone may value – many commercial folk live out of a suitcase so there is a huge family benefit in a council role.  Review your recruitment processes, especially early on in the cycle.  The private sector recruits differently.  One council had a standard application form which was a huge turn-off for private sector candidates, it confirmed all of their worst fears about penpushing bureaucracy.  We ran the initial process on a “letter and CV” basis and did the standard form only at the shortlist stage when we could explain the reasons for it.  Above all think about the induction and integration of people into the council.  Help them to succeed by pointing them at people who have made a successful transition.

The CIO at the Top Table?

(originally published as a Veredus blog here )

In an article this week on Government Computing I drew out some points that had emerged at the Socitm Conference in 2012 with conclusions for 2013.  In particular I mentioned that:

“The role of the IT profession within local authorities’ wider change agenda got some attention. Many of the people and process skills of change are baked in to the way that IT operates, yet many CIOs report a lack of recognition and traction in their authority, perceived as ‘techies in the server room’ rather than as change executives. How will the profession reposition itself – is the issue awareness or is there substance to address also?”

In this context it’s interesting to speculate on some of the blockages experienced by ambitious local government IT professionals who aspire to larger general management roles in due course.

• The Director of Resources Role.  The “obvious” career path for someone in IT towards the chief executive position is via the corporate director of resources role.  Often, elected members want an accountant for this role, and combine it with the statutory “section 151” role.  The legal requirement of the s.151 officer mean that it is advantageous to have the senior finance professional at the top table, and, understandably, especially in the current climate, members often want the best Finance lead they can get.  Not all authorities have a financially-qualified director of resources, but since many do, this narrows the pipe for IT professionals to progress.

• Reluctance to be “Corporate”.  I have detected in some individuals a sense that in order to progress to a corporate position one has to take on positions which will decide against the interests of the IT Department, albeit for the greater good.  I sometimes hear people talk of individuals who have done this as though they have betrayed their calling and turned their back on the profession (I exaggerate slightly to make the point).  The strong culture of IT as a profession and of IT departments therefore works against those who wish to leave.

• Career development.  It is relatively easy to develop a career focused on IT.  The challenges are real, fascinating, and continually changing.  There are well structured opportunities to network with colleagues in IT in other councils or other organisations.  Those role models at the top of the profession, are, by definition, those who chose to stay within it. By contrast it is harder to develop the networks for a future chief executive or resources director – where does one go to network with HR professionals, finance folk, policy wonks, lawyers…

There is a strong parallel with the HR profession, who often have similar debates about achieving top table status.  It is my experience that where the HR Director has a place at the top table it is (almost) invariably because of the particular strengths of the individual, rather than the job description or the post structure.  The chief executive and senior colleagues want the individual around the table because their input is known to be valuable, and not just in their area of formal responsibility.  Unfortunately there is a bit of a vicious circle about this – without opportunities to gain a corporate/strategic perspective it is hard to add value to it!  It is an interesting challenge for the profession (if it wishes) to seek opportunities to inculcate, and support their members who wish to develop, this wider perspective.

Career Planning into Uncertainty

Originally published on the Veredus website.

I recently had the privilege of speaking to a London/South East group of the LGC Future Leaders for Local Government, about Career Management at a time of such uncertainty.

This blog is intended to capture a few of the key messages, and is aimed at people mid-career. It’s a five-step process and requires you to visualise a circle, and a fuzzy triangle!

1. Apply all your knowledge of demographic trends and economic projections around pensions to calculate the age that you think you will be when you can retire from work. Then subtract your current age. For me it’s about 30, for my audience it was about 40 and for a new grad it’s probably more like 50. That’s a long time.

2. Now visualise the circle I mentioned. It’s a pie chart of those years that you just calculated. How much of that time do you think you’ll spend in your current sector or with your current organisation? (All of it? Really?) How much time will you spend in the private sector, public sector, working for yourself? How much time will you spend juggling work and further study? How much time will you spend prioritising your career advancement, really focused on putting in the hours and building your base of achievements, and how much time will you spend giving a higher priority to family, or other objectives? The importance of this exercise is to get you thinking beyond merely the next job, and realising that you have many choices, especially if you can look beyond the immediate question of what to do next.

3. Now think back in time, from now, your years to retirement, think of what the world and context was like then, what was going on and what was the right career strategy for that time. Then consider the various trends that will play out over the remaining decades of your own work life. Pretty quickly you’ll realise that aiming to replicate the career path of people currently at the top of organisations is unlikely to be the way to get there, that the world has changed and is likely to change again many times.

4. Now think about the triangle. The base of the triangle represents the breadth of your experiences: you can aim for an apex above any part of the base. Wider experiences and skill sets lead to more options. The base can obviously be widened through a wider range of work if possible, but study, reading around and networking can extend the insights and skills that you can bring to bear. For example, a career accountant will, all else being equal, be a better candidate for a Director of Corporate Resources role if they have spent time and attention with HR colleagues, understanding their issues and contribution, rather than simply focusing on a deeper and deeper financial specialism. Good use of LinkedIn groups, subscribing to the right Blogs and (this will surprise some) intelligent use of Twitter can be very helpful in expanding the base of the triangle.

5. Why is the triangle “fuzzy”? That’s to symbolise what one very senior CEO described as “hinterland” – having more to what makes you “you” than simply work. We talk about authenticity in leadership and being true to yourself: there needs to be a “self” there that you can be true to. No-one on their deathbed says “I wish I’d spent more time at the office”

It is vaguely worrying that when I get invited to talk about career planning it is almost invariably to groups from just one sector, or just one function (and sometimes one function in one sector!) – it suggests a development model that is unlikely to be the working reality of many people within that function or sector. If, as with the LGC Leaders programme this is clearly understood and breadth is welcomed then this is less of an issue – but it will be a shame if budget retrenchment drives development and career planning into silos. In that context I had a very cheering conversation with a County Chief Executive who is thinking about leadership development for cohorts of future leaders across the public sector within the County. It poses the interesting question of that is the best form of cohort for leadership development – people with the same issues, or people with different ones?

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.

Notes from the Guardian Public Services Summit 2010

Broad Themes

  • Times are going to be very tough, and it will be a tough time to be a public sector leader … (but)
  • There are tremendous opportunities to do things better, differently …(though)
  • We will need to create space for risk-taking…. (and)
  • Many solutions will rely on the more sophisticated use of the third sector and social enterprises …
  • Which will require a significant rethink of procurement.

Specific Sessions

Paul Martin, formerly Canadian Prime Minister and Finance Minister at the time, between 1993 and 1998 that Canada eliminated a very large public sector debt (which seemed relevant!).  They did this by (a) engaging the public in the reasons for tough choices – ie that it would directly affect them and their future rather than eg because the capital markets were telling them to, and showing that they had a highly credible plan which hit its milestones (b) setting tough targets quickly that were reasonably well informed (Paul Martin got two-three experts in a room and got them to come up with departmental savings targets, which ranged from 10-65%) (c) sharing the pain – no department was ringfenced (interesting to compare this with current political declarations which are ringfencing eg NHS) and anybody who didn’t think their target was fair had to persuade cabinet colleagues to take the cut instead (and there was a degree of dealing around this, at the margins) (d) sharing the beneft – after the savings came through they launched a major education budget, an R&D budget, then tax cuts, then a health programme.  He was very positive about the work that the UK has done around Social Enterprise – he sees that as being a key part of what will help us move forward.

Vij Randeniya, Chief Fire Officer, West Midlands was impressive and inspirational on the topic of leadership.  Talked about the three facets of Leadership, Management and Command, the latter being a new one on the traditional local government view of the world, but very relevant to him.  He wore uniform, deliberately, and said it was time for the experts to reassert themselves professionally – a smart uniform being a part of the mix.

Rob Whiteman, who is shortly off to to be MD of IDeA, spoke well about local leadership in Barking and Dagenham, and is clearly engaging with the wider issue of how we support innovation.  Was clear that if LG waits to be given independence it won’t happen and it has to be grabbed with both hands.  Also had his nice sound-bite in the context of siloes working against corporate interests of “professionals should be on tap, not on top”.

A session on Nannying, nudge or knowledge?  What inspires behaviour change? was very interesting.  Ben Hamilton-Baillie talked about some things that had been done with experimental traffic schemes to change driver and pedestrian behaviour.  Perhaps because that was more tangible, and he had photos, I was better able to cope with that at the end of day.  He basically talked about how humans wre very well adapted to behave sensibly and socially if allowed to do so.  He gave the example of norms that arise on an ice rink, and spoke about schemes such as one at Ashford in Kent where they have deliberately done away with lots of traffic lights, road markings, and so on, and cars and people interact in the town centre much more safely and easily than they did when when there was many thousands of pounds worth of street furniture and signals.

A session on innovation and the media might have been quite interesting but I was too busy catching up on Twitter (ho ho).  The hash tag for the conference is #pss2010 so you can see what people were saying.  Actually the main “wow” statistic I take from that session is that 24m people in the UK had used facebook in the last 30 days.  Over half of the people in the room were on facebook, though there was relatively little tweeting from the conference (in my case this was due to a concern about how twitter works alongside chatham house rules).

The next day had a useful set of talks about what will a post-recession public sector look like?  Philip Blond of ResPublica drove home the points that social enterprise and community engagement are key and that procurement will need to change to unlock benefit.  Said that research showed that the long-run cost reduction from private sector externalisation was only about 12%, and that was before including in costs of managing the contracts.   Craig Dearden-Philips, CE of SpeakingUp drew compellingly on his experience as a CEO of a charity, a front-line carer, and a county councillor to address the topic and to argue that social enterprise and community engagement are key and that procurement will need to change to unlock benefit.  Abdool Kara, now the CE at Swale, also anticipated more community based models – interestingly arguing that we may seem ALMO structures for more services than just housing.

Charlie Leadbetter was brilliant about community engagement mechanisms – “if you ask a question you’ll get an answer to it, so think very carefully about the question first”.  They have folk doing ethnographic studies, ie living for 6 months on estates alongside chaotic families to understand the points at which intervention can and can’t be effective.  Asserted that social workers get 14% face time, 72% admin.  Showed us a photo of a wall where they had mapped one family’s interaction with the public sector over 18 years, at a cost of many millions.

Lastly Jonathan Kestenaum, CE of NESTA spoke well about the difficulty and necessity of creating space for innovation in the public sector.  It is harder than doing it in the private sector, and more necessary.