Councils deliver a range of services to meet the needs and wants of their communities. These services can be broadly grouped into several categories including:
- Community assets which include transport infrastructure, community facilities, parks and open spaces, and natural assets
- Community programs and support for community organisations which promote active participation in community life through recreation and sport
- Services which aim to offset social inequity such as immunisation, NDIS services, aged care, community bus services, and library services
- Regulatory services which keep the community safe such as rangers, development assessment and building inspections
- Corporate management which ensures the necessary governance, transparency, accountability and efficiency of the council’s administration
The term community or public value is often discussed in relation to council services and gets much debate. Generally, there are four key questions:
- What is the role of local government and what services should councils provide?
- What are the communities needs vs what are their wants, and who should pay for these services?
- What level of service should council provide? Should it be minimum requirement or higher depending on their community wants and needs?
- Does council provide the service efficiently or effectively? How is this benchmarked or assessed?
As rates have a considerable impact on the cost of living, Council must live within its means. Therefore, whilst services may be beneficial, the opportunity cost of delivering a service or delivering to a service level must also be considered. Trade-off between services is an important consideration in a service review and a service should not be considered in isolation.
One of the mechanisms to test public value is to undertake a service review. This is a point in time assessment of a service or group of services with a view to identify what is working, what can be improved and if there is a benefit in making changes.
Unfortunately, for many councils’ service reviews can be expensive and they often don’t result in material change or deviation from the status quo. They often don’t deliver public value for their communities. The challenge is to ensure they are very clear on the outcomes they are looking to achieve that will lead to better public value which also requires experienced personnel being able to undertake the reviews.
Some of the competing challenges in undertaking a service review can include:
- Service reviews require an open mind, curious approach and growth mindset. This means looking at different ways of working or alternative delivery of services. One of the risks in a service review is that the service review team are closed minded. Being able to keep an open mind around how a service is undertaken allows for a very good review of how the service is being delivered and how it could be undertaken more effectively or efficiently.
- Service reviews may challenge the status quo. This may place Elected Members in a difficult situation of advocating to the community for reduced service level which is a difficult sell to the community. Elected Members may seek to retain the status quo. Ensuring buy in from Elected Members is critical up front in ensuring they are able to take the community along for the journey as well as advocate for the need for the service review.
- Council has a diverse range of customers who may have different needs from a service. Customers who use a service may desire higher service levels, however non-users may see investment in a service as not providing them with value. This is common in many community programs, sporting facilities and the like where some parts of the community derive a higher benefit than others. The service review team should consider both the needs of users and non-users in assessing the service level and the positive impact this contributes to the broader public value of the community.
- Staff impacted by the service review may find the process threatening as it could impact on their roles and create discomfort in learning new skills or new ways of working. The risk here is that the service review may seek to maintain the status quo in going down the path of least resistance. Effective change management will be an important part of the service review process along with articulating the benefits of the changes for all involved.
- There is a risk that the objectives and priorities of the service review team are misaligned to the broader strategic objectives of the organisation. For example, the organisation may be seeking financial efficiency and delivering a service to minimum requirements whereas the service review is seeking to increase level of service. There is a risk that the service review results in increased service levels at the expense of other services or rates. Defining the objectives of the service review upfront and getting buy in from the Executive is an important step.
- Service reviews look at service in isolation and not consider broader impacts or opportunity cost associated with a service. This may include looking to increase level of service or continuing to deliver a service when resources may be better invested in other services within council. The risk here is that there is financial cost creep where the level of service is increased. Opportunity cost should form part of the assessment when undertaking a service review.
- The team or consultants undertaking the review may have a different operating philosophy to what the broader organisation is looking to achieve. For example, at BRS we use the Human Synergistics Organisational Culture Inventory (OCI) which promotes a constructive culture, but this may be misaligned to other consultants or internal management’s philosophy. Linking the service reviews to an overall organisational set of principles is critical.
- Service reviews will be undertaken either by in-house staff who may not have the experience in organisational design or consultants who lack experience in the practical application of the services within local government. This may result in recommendations which negatively impact on performance. Use the right mix of consultants and staff. Look to co-develop where possible using consultants for coaching and staff for their internal insights. This mix of resources is critical in getting the best outcomes possible from the service reviews.
The items listed should not detract Councils or any organisations from undertaking service reviews. However, they are a significant investment of time, energy and resources and require the right attention and focus from the start to deliver the outcomes the organisation and community is looking for in achieving public value.