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In the search for clarity, don’t settle for simplicity

This article was originally published in The MJ 

“This company is in deep trouble…..there’s a fountain outside reception!”.

This rule of thumb was shared with me by an experienced member of a professional restructuring and turnaround team.  These teams are sent in to rescue failing businesses when they reach crisis point, and make last ditch attempts to prevent administration or bankruptcy. While management would always want to be rescued, one of the responsibilities of the turnaround teams was to figure out whether it was worth the effort.

A fountain was seen as a symbol that management had taken their eye off the ball – that vanity projects had been indulged and core business neglected.  And more often than not, the presence of a fountain – or equivalent – coincided with a decision to walk away.

Of course, the private sector is a totally different beast from the public sector. But with local government holding more than 700 service responsibilities and juggling myriad competing priorities, the question of ‘what is core business?’ seems more relevant than ever.

This is the fourth in a series of articles I have written about leadership and organisational resilience (in March, May, August and now December) as the Covid crisis has developed. And while the three vaccines we have so far provide hope that the end of the pandemic is in sight, its impact will likely be felt for a generation.  Huge questions remain unanswered. How to fund local government (and especially adult social care) in future?  What role should local government play in the climate challenge, in levelling up, and social justice?  Will we ever resolve the devolution question? Will we get an EU exit deal?  Is our democracy broken or just in need of tweaking?

Meanwhile, budgets have to be set, services have to be delivered and elections prepared for.  In the face of an ongoing global pandemic, how should local government set priorities?  What models should be used to frame the choices they face?  What is their core business?

In pursuit of answers, I often see false dichotomies being advanced.  Transformation versus business as usual.  System thinking versus silo thinking.  Hierarchy versus autonomy.  Crisis versus normality.  Management versus leadership.  Digital versus analogue or old school.

But none of these fashionable alternatives provide a solution.  Instead, local authorities need to restate their core business.  My view is that this should be along the lines of ‘learn how to manage big, complex, demand-led public services so that local priority outcomes are improved and services cost less overall’.

This may seem simplistic, but it isn’t – it’s about providing clarity of purpose and recognising complexity far more than before.

Anything that does not explicitly support this core business can be questioned.  Savings proposals can be judged against it; will the proposals help improve outcomes so we can spend less?  Will that so-called efficiency help my front-line staff better manage the complex system or not?  Investment or commercial proposals can be judged against it; will this investment in digital directly improve our ability to manage complex demand? Will this housing development help reduce homelessness? Will charging for this green waste have the right impact on household behaviours?

We all know how clarity of purpose helps public service leaders ensure that their managers are spending the majority of their time on their core business.  Importantly, core business is a top-team collective endeavour, not a delegated endeavour.  And crucially, it provides a framework for building the resilience of organisations and services against future disruption.  We are currently conducting research into what organisational resilience really means; look out for more on this in the New Year.

I am regularly humbled by the sheer breadth of requirements and challenges faced by council chief executives and senior directors.  Their dedication to public service and relentless optimism for the future is awe-inspiring, and the fact that so few local authorities have gone bust in the past 10 years is testament to their ability to focus on core business.  But with tired staff requiring more support, and limited management capacity because of exceptional pressures, clarity of purpose has never been more important.

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