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Reflections from the Roretti team

Planning for the future - while dealing with the moment

An eye-level view of a chess board with the white pieces facing the black

It’s now well-recognised, even outside of public servant circles, that local government is in a crisis. The combination of soaring, complex, demand plus shrinking finances and a depleted staff pool is hitting the news on a regular enough basis that it would be surprising to hear anything other than ‘things need to change’. When it gets to the ‘how’ however – things get more difficult. With local authorities fighting day-by-day to provide services for the communities they serve, time and thinking space – as well as funding - is at a premium. So how can public sector professionals plan for the future while dealing with the moment? This piece reflects on some of the challenges facing those working in local government transformation, and on some of the things that may enable – or hinder – that task.

Making the case for change

So colleagues agree that ‘things need to change’. At all levels. That must be a strong starting point you’d think? Well yes, but… Sometimes the consensus is almost too strong to be useful. How do they need to change? Where do they need to change? What might need to be sacrificed – or compromised – in order to achieve that change? Unsurprisingly those are questions that actually need answering, and where consensus starts to fall apart.

Working with one local authority we were told about strong senior leadership of the transformation agenda, but it quickly emerged that the change being championed was far too broad to be practically useful.

If change doesn’t make people slightly uncomfortable, you’re probably not pushing hard enough – and this proved to be the case for that authority, where it became clear that the senior leadership team were quick to endorse transformation, but slow to push for it when it came to their own teams and services.

Beware the trap of thinking that you’re driving change if you talk enough about it; too much talk and the term quickly becomes meaningless. Instead, what our client needed was to focus on a smaller set of practical, tangible challenges – ones that the organisation all recognised – and then connect these with a set of equally tangible transformation objectives, ones where the link between current challenges and what needs to change are really clear.

Ensuring all senior managers have ‘skin in the game’

Leadership of change needs to be focused, it needs to be repetitive (see below), and it needs to hold people to account. Others might recognise the plight of transformation colleagues we worked with; while told that transformation was an organisational priority – as well as a personal objective of the CEO – the transformation agenda was devolved to a small team, in a culture which made access to and ability to challenge senior directors on their transformation plans very difficult.

It’s rarely enough to say that an organisation is committed to change; before handing over to any kind of PMO or expert team it’s important that senior management are part of designing and agreeing clear goals – and that individuals have signed up to the consequences of pursuing those goals.

Things will get difficult! And expecting individuals and teams to be able to hold their managers and directors to account is often unreasonable as well as unfeasible. The role of a senior sponsor for change is not simply to kick things off but to ensure the continued and active participation of colleagues, making it clear that goals will be regularly reviewed and revisited and that all parties have a part to play when it comes to doing things differently.

Addressing likely discomfort head on

Uncomfortable, unreasonable, unfeasible… Crisis, challenges and consequences… Transformation is hard, and it’s a really difficult job for those teams in local authorities whose purpose is to help their organisation achieve tricky things. It’s in situations like this where team culture and supportive management play such an important role.

In the local authority we worked with, our involvement came from the Director of Transformation’s view that the team needed additional support and would benefit from the time and space that is often created by a short-term project and some external resource. They set the tone for the project from the outset, openly discussing how difficult the situation felt and enabling their team to express concerns and challenges in a team space that felt safe and supportive.

It's easy to skip over ‘the soft stuff’, and a struggle to even write a cliché like ‘safe and supportive space’! but we all know that people don’t do their best work in environments that feel threatening and unsupportive. We also know that transformation is – and should be – a complex undertaking, and that things may transpire in ways that can’t be 100% predicted and prepared for. Again the role of leadership – from CEO downwards – is key; creating a sense of shared endeavour, continually reminding teams and individuals of the vision for change, and admitting that no-one has all the answers and that it’s ok to share uncertainties.

Thinking about skills and expertise

Often (and this isn’t restricted to local government) transformation is approached as a project, tasked to a PMO. We’d agree that it’s really challenging to deliver and change services at the same time, and that additional resource to take forward transformation goals is most likely necessary. However, some of our clients are being thoughtful about the skills and approach required to achieve the type of change that’s needed – with the potential for deeper, more interesting long-term transformation.

Like the cliches above, ‘design-thinking’, ‘agile methodologies’ and ‘scrum approaches’ are likely to get a lot of eyes rolling. Together with digital expertise however, they can help to inject new and creative approaches into difficult tasks; if you want to do things differently, you probably do need [help] to think differently. Our local authority partner is in the ongoing process of making some really interesting hires; our hope for them is that the individuals are given the space and freedom to work differently and don’t find that they end up feeling isolated or hands-tied in an atmosphere that isn’t quite ready for them.

Creating space

All of the above may make sense, but the difficulties facing any leader or organisation trying to implement the conditions for positive change are huge. The local government crisis doesn’t leave much space to stand back and reflect, to admit uncertainties, to explore new approaches and skill sets - nor does it feel obvious to focus on fewer, ‘simpler’ targets in the face of so much that needs to change.

Most local government leaders are doing incredible jobs in a very, very difficult environment. Where some are excelling – in our view – is in welcoming help, and knowing where, and which, additional inputs can help deliver really excellent services in an area. This can range from collaboration with other organisations (working with the private sector and with the NHS to improve services for care leavers in London for example) to knowing when to bring in partners who can help ‘make some space’ – facilitating the conditions for teams and managers to take stock and see what’s actually going on with the task confronting them.

Being brave

It feels like things will continue to get worse for a while before they get better, and the pressing need for change is not going to go away in local government. From our work with local authorities confronting how to approach transformation we see reasons to be hopeful, but we’re also clear about the scale of the challenge – and the courage that will be required by those who want to tackle it ‘well’.

This blog hasn’t even touched on AI (watch this space) but even with the leaps in technological capabilities in store local government will need thoughtful, curious, creative and human leaders to conceive and champion the changes necessary in coming years. We look forward to seeing some great results.

Kate Kewley is an Associate Consultant at Roretti.

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