Leadership and local government culture criticized in new report

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez February 16, 2016
Summary:
A joint report released by Solace and Civica today highlights the restrictive work environments employees face in local government - which ultimately stifles innovation.

man-in-box

Solace - the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives - and Civica, a technology company that has a strong play in public sector, have jointly released a report this week that casts a critical eye over the leadership and culture of local government organisations.

The report highlights how over a third of local council leaders believe that management is restricting innovation in their organisations, how the culture doesn’t inspire employees and how less than 10% view local government as an empowering place to work.

The statistics are pretty bleak, but shouldn’t be all that surprising if you’ve been following our coverage of local government digital transformation in recent months.

Whilst Solace’s digital lead recently told me in an interview that there is “no excuse” for local government to not be innovating, I’ve continuously highlighted the apparent lack of ambition in local teams and pointed to what may be blocking change (outsourcing contracts, leadership and procurement, to name a few).

However, it’s hard to be too harsh on local government, as it is facing an incredibly tough time, as the report highlights:

The sector’s imperative to balance the books is still driving significant spending cuts across the majority of services. Transport, energy, business and the environment were among the biggest losers recently, with resource budgets falling by between 15% and 37%.

According to the latest Autumn Statement, these cuts will continue until 2020. Meanwhile, the pressure to deliver high quality services on a wider scale across the public sector will continue, and in turn will drive further investment in technology and digital transformation.

Plus there are the shared service agreements, devolution and multiple outsourcing deals to think about.

As I said, not easy.

But that doesn’t mean that excuses can be made. In fact, those budget pressures should be used as a tool to get buy-in for wide-ranging transformation and rethinking of public services. So what’s holding organisations back at a local level?

As we have seen time and time again, it appears that people are playing a big part in the problem.

Leadership

The report states that 30 percent of public sector employees at middle management and below believe that a lack of clear leadership and direction is holding back effective change. Some 25% also believe that their current leadership team is not able to effectively lead the team over the next decade. Whilst 66% put this down to the fact that they only care about how they are perceived and not about their employees.

Disengagement with employees across the organisation is obviously a concern.

The report suggests that leaders need to get better at letting those lower down the ranks make decisions for themselves. It states:

The most senior leaders need to be setting a clear direction; inspiring, challenging and encouraging those around them to make the vision a reality. They can’t make this happen alone. Our Leadership Forum agreed that we need to be better at encouraging everyone in the organisation to take accountability for delivery and improvement. We need to be better at harnessing the sense of public service so we can provide better outcomes-based service to our citizens.

Part of this is giving a voice to the ‘crazy ones’, creating greater diversity in our organisations and empowering people to make decisions. It takes a strong leader to empower others and we need to make sure we are equipping all of our leaders with the skills and the tools that they need.

Whilst I’m not a fan of the term “the crazy ones”, I can see what they’re getting at. It needs to be okay for those that want to try do things a different way to go ahead and do that. The resistance to change should never be underestimated.

Interestingly, the report also highlights that 36% of council leaders and executives across the UK believe that transformation is being held back by a restrictive culture and 57% believe that it is being held back by an over abundance of red tap and regulations.

The report notes that “there is no quicker way to suffocate original thinking or genius ideas than by punishing failure and not giving space to innovate and take risks”.

Trevor Holden, chief executive officer for Luton Borough Council, commented on the report and advocates a light touch approach to rules. He said:

A structure needs to be in place to reward and share good practice, working on the principle of tight and loose - tight governance with loose or empowered staff – with the ability to overstep boundaries for the right and auditable reasons. Equally poor performance should be dealt with swiftly without which the organisational bar is lowered and hard-working staff demotivated.

My take
Change ahead sign with clouds in sky © bahrialtay – Fotolia.com

As I said earlier on, not hugely surprising if you’ve been following this stuff lately, but equally will serve as an important reminder to those heading up a local organisation that needs to think radically about how it changes delivery of service. Staying the same isn’t going to work and there’s only so many times you can cut back office functions.