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Charlie Adan: Local government machinery gets in the way

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In the face of austerity, we should be proud and vocal that our sector has embraced the challenges and progressed, with many examples of impressive achievement.

But progress still seems patchy. While some are leading from the front, transforming what they do in ways that would have been beyond imagination in years past, others lag in embracing change.

Ambitions for places and communities are abundant. The case for change in the current context has been made, and strategies for transformation are in place. So what sets the trailblazers apart?

We are warned that organisational culture eats strategy for breakfast and ambition feeds that appetite. Beliefs, attitudes, behaviours and practices define an organisation and drive its achievements – not just a sense of purpose.

So how has cultural change figured in the work of the trailblazers, and what have they done to change the culture, allowing strategy and ambitions to take hold?

The forces driving otherwise sensible people to resist change against an overwhelming case for it are fierce. We all naturally do the things we believe are important and rewarded, focusing on what we see our leaders focus on, and shaping our behaviours and our beliefs around what we see, hear and feel.

It is our lived experience that sets the tone: the leadership, the relationships and processes. Whatever our level in an organisation, we can be both a victim and a perpetrator of the prevailing culture.

I remember being advised that if you want to change culture you have to change the way you change culture, and that means doing ‘real work’ in new ways. So what is the real work?

Leadership is a big part of it. There is an abundance of talented, authentic leaders within local government and in our communities. The sector is always learning and using new techniques to enhance leadership at all levels. We crack on, and the impact is clear.

Much work is being done within organisations and beyond to build strong, collaborative relationships by creating a sense of common purpose with communities and partners. Some great collaborative initiatives are bearing fruit.

As a former chief executive I am realistic. I know systems must be played. Indeed, while working as a monitoring officer I received criticism by colleagues frustrated by the way things had to be done.

I now see many committed, determined system leaders who talk of overcoming organisational barriers to achieve shared goals. But I fear that for some more junior and frontline colleagues those barriers set the parameters within which they feel they must work.

We expect our teams to be creative and innovative. We engage them in constructive developmental activities and create impressive plans to change this, that and the other.

Sometimes this creative process involves our communities, councillors and officers working together as one, perhaps in a so-called ‘safe space’.

In contrast, more formal meetings, and certainly those governed by constitutional requirements often remain spaces where support or criticism for a proposition is a binary choice. Issues that need resolution are left unresolved, and relationships can get battered.

The lawyers will be happy that a decision is challenge-proof. But if based only on apparent agreement, rather than a commitment to purpose among everyone vital to its success, it will be hard to implement.

With determination and hard work, many good ideas come to fruition. But often they don’t. What seems a universal complaint is that systems and processes we use in the name of “good governance” tend to get in the way and slow the pace.

I am sure there are places where the governance machinery, the culture, the relationships and the ambitions are perfectly harmonious. But if not, and those attempting to change things rub up against a largely unchanged system, perhaps we should be unsurprised that our colleagues are sceptical and resist change.

Of course, good governance is vital and some formalities must be observed. But I am confident that with some focus and creativity, we could change the machinery of local government for the better.

As management guru Peter Drucker said: “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”

Charlie Adan, former chief executive, Kingston upon Thames RBC

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