To Improve Is to Change—to Be Perfect Is to Change Often: Part 1
Winston Churchill, whose words are quoted above, clearly knew a thing or two about what it takes to be successful in public service.
The business of delivering public services is beset with constant challenges—shifting political, economic and demographic sands make it one of the most challenging environments to work within.
And, every so often, substantial internal changes are added to the external pressures, lending a whole new dimension to the task of keeping things running smoothly.
Recently more than 40 local councils and municipalities merged to form 19 new councils in New South Wales, Australia—with a number of other mergers possible in the future. Over the forthcoming months and years, these councils will face a variety of challenges posed by the need to bring together the operations of two or three separate organisations into a single, cohesive whole.
Even though most of them perform similar or identical functions, there will be differences of policy, process and culture between them. These will need to be brought together and harmonised, ideally to embody the best thinking on what is possible and desirable for the future of their communities.
These issues are thrown into even sharper relief when considering how information systems will be affected, particularly those used at the point of contact with citizens—in civic centres and town halls, in contact centres via email and the phone, or on the council’s website.
Even if the merging councils use the same systems, they will almost certainly be configured differently from one another, encapsulating differences of policy and procedure, and ways of interacting with back-office applications.
Despite these differences, bins will still be emptied, roads repaired and sports grounds maintained—but these cannot be organised, managed and delivered differently forever. Differing service delivery models (and the systems and processes that underpin them) will need to be knitted together at some point. Some bits will need to be unstitched and remodelled, and others unpicked altogether so that they can be replaced with something new.
So how can the affected councils deal with these challenges such that service to citizens is maintained or improved, response times don’t suffer, and staff are not driven to distraction by confusion and unfamiliar working practices?
To say that it will be necessary to plan carefully is stating the obvious, as is the need to involve both employees and the local community in the design of post-merger policies and services. This will be a challenging exercise, and the effort involved in managing these procedural and cultural challenges is not to be underestimated.
It is, however, vital to get right, in order to provide a firm foundation for the necessary changes.
In part two of this blog, I will look at some of the practical considerations and responses that can help smooth the path toward resolving these challenges—and realizing the benefits that the council mergers are designed to deliver.
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