What would a future-ready local authority look like if you designed it from the ground up?
This is the question a client asked me a few years ago. The answer looked quite different to any of the organisations I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a few from the inside now.
Each of the organisations I have looked at has suffered from the same problem: the fundamental organisational unit is a service. Each of those services has people attached to it. Those people have their own processes. Those processes are often captured in the service’s own technology. The service has its own interface to customers (citizens). And its own internal interfaces to the rest of the organisation.
This structure has resulted from the way that local government has grown: organically. Every time there has been a new demand, a new initiative, or a new legislative decree from the centre, a new function has been built to deliver or support it.
These services might sit under a management hierarchy, but that still leaves a huge number of internal interfaces to manage, with friction at every one. And more importantly — and expensively — a huge number of external interfaces to the customer.
Attempts to rationalise these interfaces have been challenging. Common web or call centre interfaces have often been little more than a veneer over the existing structure. Any interaction beyond the most rudimentary, exposes this internal complexity.
For example, I once called my local council to report that my regular cycle path was overgrown, layered with leaves, and affected by fly-tipping. The web form couldn’t handle this complexity. Instead I spent 40 minutes on the phone as a call centre operative worked her way through three different systems, manually inputting my requests into three different systems with three different interfaces, to be addressed by three different teams.
Imagine if you changed the fundamental organisational unit of the council. Instead of an organisation built around the services it provides, you build an organisation around the citizens and places it supports.
This might sound counter-intuitive if you’re trying to rationalise: there are infinitely more places and people than services. But right now, every place and person has multiple touch-points with the council. Each external interaction sets off a cascade of inefficient internal interactions.
This is problematic for the 80% of citizens with whom the council has relatively few interactions beyond the automatic. Regular tax payments, mass mails, use of the library or leisure centre, and the occasional issue with a lost bin. For the 20% or so of citizens with much more intensive needs, it is catastrophic.
Without this re-orientation around the citizen, it is incredibly difficult to build consistent, coherent support, and to do so at what might be a sustainable level of cost. It is even more difficult to begin to intervene proactively, preventing issues from arising rather than addressing them when they are acute. You just don’t have the connected data about people and places to be able to consistently identify — early — where interventions might be needed.
Construction not criticism
I have nothing but admiration for the leaders and workers in the councils I’ve encountered. They have shown incredible resilience and ingenuity to address staggering difficulties. Losing huge fractions of their budgets and many of their colleagues in recent years, they have coped by redoubling efforts, changing their operating models, and investing in new systems and technology, in order to maintain service — particularly for the most vulnerable. Nonetheless, most senior leaders that I speak to admit that the current situation is unsustainable.
People and places are the wholehearted focus of the councils I’ve worked with. But their operating models aren’t aligned to supporting those people and places efficiently.