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Why (some) UK Local Government Transformations Fail


The scholarly amongst you will know I have adapted the title from John Kotter’s seminal article Why Transformation Efforts Fail – you can see a precis of this Bearing in mind it is 16 years old, Kotter’s messages still ring true and I would commend his ‘Eight Steps’ to anyone embarking on a transformation programme.

Taking the thrust of Kotter’s thinking as given, the challenge of designing and achieving transformation in particular sectors/industries does need special consideration. Local government has been my professional passion for 20 years and as such, I have come to know (and love) its peculiarities, strengths and drawbacks. Upon joining IMPOWER almost 18 months ago, I found a group of people who shared my frustration with some of perceived transformation wisdom in the sector – and so we set about completely redesigning the model for how it is achieved. This article is not really a plug for IMPOWER though, so I am just going to share with you some of the principles upon which our thinking was based. I do not have an empirical transformation success/failure study in local government to draw from, but anecdotally, and based on some of my experience prior to IMPOWER, it seems to me to be absolutely the case that many programmes fail. It also seems to me that many succeed, and many fall into a middle place where a combination of re-invention, re-badging and re-organisation has allowed a new baseline and version of the truth to be established.

In this blog I am not going to name any councils or companies as examples of transformation failure of success. You can draw your own conclusions about current and recent cases in the sector as you think right. Instead this is a positive piece designed to help folk in the sector get it right; instead of talking entirely about why things fail I am suggesting how to make transformations succeed. But in true John Kotter style, I have forced our thinking into eight principles (some of which align with his eight steps)

Eight principles for successful transformation in local government

  1. Ditch the TOM: This is our first – and by far the most important – principle. Lots of transformation programmes, promoted by some of the bigger management consultancies, seem to think that a simplistic Target Operating Model (TOM) is a must-have for transformation. Not only is it wholly ignorant of the complexity of local government, but it fails to capture the vibrant relationship between citizen and state that local government represents. Instead of TOMs we should be thinking about eco-systems of organisational forms operating dynamically in a place. When you see a TOM on a PowerPoint slide, start to worry that what you produce will be irrelevant by the time it arrives. Take a look at a recent blog to show just how different images of organisation can be created – Altering Our Images
  2. Non-financial urgency: Kotter talks about the need for an imperative for change, which is absolutely right. And for almost every council, the public sector recession provides such an imperative. But it isn’t enough. Much more thinking about the non-financials is needed for the culture of a transformation to really speak to those it affects. It is pretty easy to say we have an £#million budget hole, it is much harder to explain what is wrong elsewhere and to stick to a consistent narrative over 2-3 years. But say it you must, because an imperative for financial savings can translate into a bunch of things that are not wanted – e.g. short term cuts – as well as encourage game-playing. Conversely, a passion for social justice or place-based improvements can create the positive buzz needed to give big change momentum
  3. A guiding coalition: Kotter aces this, so not much to add with a local government slant, except that sometimes we think we have such a coalition when really we don’t. One of the techniques I use with clients who are ‘formally’ signed up to a change is to create an imagined future event in which they will be involved, such as the signing of a partnership deal. It is amazing how apparent cheerleaders now haven’t really thought through what it will mean for them personally. The lack of communication in transformation programmes is symptomatic of a failure of guidance, and not always a separate problem
  4. Bottom up, people focused: At IMPOWER we talk about ‘Services First’. This means getting the ownership of the service departments at all levels is the place to start. One drawback of traditional transformation approaches is they regard mass consolidation of corporate services as the place to start. Everything else has to fit into the paradigm creates around finance, HR, customer, admin and procurement. But these services account for 10%-20% of a council’s internal cost, so why start there? And nothing is more likely to wind up a service professional than the idea that some consolidated admin function is the answer to the real issues they face. The smart move is to start with service, and build the connections across rather than mandate them top-down. Ownership is crucial in any transformation and it is not built by alienating 80% of the Council on Day 1. And we have to remember that local government is about services from people, to people. No end of technical analysis is no substitute for genuine engagement
  5. Demand, the new supply: Transforming local government has to be about making changes beyond the organisational constructs we know and love. Often, that includes partners and there are some examples of connected transformations across the sector. But managing demand – there’s the real opportunity. If we can use behavioural and other demand techniques to alter the focus and volume of demand, we create a real basis for turning off supply. We think that modern transformations should be as much about demand as supply – a real challenge but something we should be aiming for as the level of financial gap is so enormous
  6. Practical visioning: There are some examples in the sector of where the vision has outstripped the reality of achieving it. And whilst we need ambitious visions, we also need people in the room who understand the practicalities of getting things done, especially when this means negotiating an entirely new relationship with the private and third sectors.
  7. Technical alignment: This sounds like an obvious point, but it is amazing how many local government transformations have to operate a ‘set of books’ which is not consistent with the key norms in Finance and HR. Frankly, a huge enemy of transformation is the ability of competing processes, notably budgeting, workforce planning and business planning. Transformations in local government shouldn’t pass Go until this is sorted out
  8. Ends not means: Finally, I shudder at the lack of original thinking used in some transformations. PPM isn’t enough and transformation programme should be crucibles for new ideas about making change happen, not the repositories of utterly soul destroying and bureaucratic processes. Again, we need to celebrate the complexity of local government and not reduce its diverse challenges to RAG status and Prince II strictures

We would be delighted to hear about what you would add, subtract or even agree with on this list. Transformation programmes in local government offer a real basis for changing the sector, and it is vital we get it right.

Alex Khaldi

Alex Khaldi is a Director at IMPOWER. To contact him to discuss this blog or any aspect of our work, please e-mail or call 0776 413 2182

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IMPOWER is an organisation driven by a social purpose. We are a values led consultancy dedicated to the reform of the public sector.



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