Revolution/Evolution (delete as applicable)


Surely evolution is less painful?

Many moons ago we ran a post which began with the immortal words “‘Never throw away your old drain-pipes”.  these words rang loud and clear in my mind recently when I sat in on a workshop/meeting looking at how my local authority would reshape some of its central functions.  With changing times, less money and a different political environment it was felt that the time was ripe to begin to reassess the way in which the council organises itself behind the scenes.

The last time they attempted such a process was back in the days when LAAs (Local Area Agreements for our younger readers) were the order of the day and LSPs (Local Strategic Partnerships) were springing up all over the place.  A suitable arrangement of all of the various forums, groups and organisations (not to mention the more dominant personalities) was made, and they spent the next half a decade or so delivering their workplans, albeit at a diminishing rate of returns.

Sitting around the table I found myself on I discovered I was joined by many of the people who were around in those days, and indeed who helped to set up those very structures now up for discussion.  They were wonderfully frank in their assessments, sharing that they thought at the time they had got things right but now saw the errors of their ways; this time they were sure they knew what went wrong, and had come up with a foolproof plan to guide structures for the next six or seven years.

None of them saw the irony embedded within their words and plans.

Whilst I wasn’t personally around for previous discussions all that time ago, I feel confident that there were similar people sitting around a similar table, all saying that they were actually pleased that the policy framework was shifting as it allowed them to address the failings in the even older system, and that now they knew exactly how things should be done.  It’s very much like a local government version of an infinite fractal loop.

The certainty with which they were asserting that they had worked out the kinks was akin to a gambler who was convinced that they could beat the casino and clean up.  None of those appeared to have addressed the fact that in six or seven years time the political landscape – local and national – will be very different regardless of whatever happens at any election.  No-one can be sure what the situation will be with regards to resources, policy, pressures or need.  We can make educated guesses of course and project based on historical information, but none of us has a crystal ball with which we can predict the future with any certainty.

That being said, I’m willing to give it a shot.  Drawing on previous experience, the new structure will be greeted with fanfare and adulation, and be seen by some as a panacea for all ills.  Others, especially those who are deeply embedded within the ‘old’ system will constantly point out any flaws – real or perceived – and advocate for change or reversion.  Great strides will be made on those areas which had fallen away over the years, whilst those which worked okay will continue to flow away.  Other areas will fade away, with some of the much vaunted solutions actually becoming burdensome and bureaucratic and eventually simply seeing those groups stopping meeting as well as the work ceasing to happen.  As the number of groups stopping and structures failing increases, someone will point to a coming change in central government policy and suggest a radical revamp of process.

It’s this constant desire to fundamentally change things hoping that all problems will be solved which baffles me.  An obvious approach is to attempt to adopt a far more agile, responsive approach and assess on a far more regular basis the effectiveness or otherwise of all structures.  The evolution of these structures then becomes easier and more iterative, requiring fewer reboots and revamps in the process, and allowing things to adapt far more readily to changing circumstances.

This may seem an ideal, but what is actually stopping it from happening?  An attitudinal shift is required to move people away from believing that whatever is in place now will definitely be in place in a few years time, one which the current financial crisis actually makes it easier to make.  With ever increasing amounts of personnel churn and a more regular need to reassess goals and priorities, we may even be on the way there already.

There is also a degree of practicality which should drive this approach.  Again, looking back on a previous post we brought up Hooke’s Law, and it comes into play here.  Put simply, we can stretch our governance structures in any which way we want but if we do not alter any of the fundamental aspects of it then it will slowly or quickly make its way back to what it sees as a ‘natural’ shape.  The more we try to change in a short period of time through major restructures, the more the resistance and ‘snap’; only slow, regular and constant shaping will alter these basics and mould them into a stronger, more productive whole.

This iterative approach is one we have been advocating for in the online world; there is no real reason why the positive lessons cannot then be taken to the next level and replicated in the offline world.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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