Six degrees of council management

Is Will Smith a Local Government Chief Exec in disguise?

Before he was an uber-mega star Will Smith starred in the ‘great in concept; ok in execution’ film Six Degrees of Separation. The films underlying idea, based on some academic research I believe, was that basically we are all only six steps away from knowing every person on the planet.

The reason I mention it is that being in Local Government often has the same feel to it except that where I said ‘we all’ I meant ‘the junior officer’ and where I said ‘every person on the planet’ I meant ‘the Chief Executive, Cabinet and other decision makers.’

You see the only way to get things done is to get the approval of those at the very top of the organisation but often the only way to get their approval is to go through every intervening management grade on the way up. I call it the ‘six degrees of council management’.

Obviously, this is not always the case but an example from the past week has reminded me of why the hierarchy is so damn important. Basically, and here I am cutting a long story short and taking a large amount of credit for work completed by a team of people, we had been working on a project specifically for the Chief Executive. She was in charge and it was by her hand that the project would live or die. We were jumping over the six degrees of separation and found ourselves straight at the sharp end.

The report, my manager and I, jumping over several levels of responsibility had met with the CE and had quickly been shot down. She liked our work but hated our report which was, ‘overlong, over-complex and lacking structure.’ We were sent away to improve the report; we did so and received the assent of the big boss to take the report to the Councillors.

However, the report had now been circulated to our team of Directors and having been out of the loop (we were reporting straight to the Chief Executive after all) they were keen to challenge our working. Fair enough to be honest but suddenly they had a stack full of questions and were concerned that our report was ‘too short, lacking detail and too simplistic’.

So, with only three days to go until the report had to be finalised and sent to Cabinet we were reworking bits of the project and writing a new report, not for the CE (she already had her report) but for the Directors. This is despite the fact the report would never go to more than 7 or 8 people.

Lesson learnt.

Local Government is inherently a bureaucratic organisation. I don’t necessarily mean that as a negative, more just a fact of doing business. However, this means that when you try and jump some steps it will catch you out.

If you go through the slightly longer process and get each step of the six degrees of council management right and each manager on board then the chances of everything going Pete Tong at the end are much reduced. It might be frustrating but resisting the clarion call to skip over managers is definitely the way to get things done.

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8 Comments on “Six degrees of council management”

  1. LG Worker Says:

    I agree to an extent. Only if your job is working with and for Councillors, often you jump the six degrees of officer structure and get into the three or four degrees of political structures. So say you have a report produced by a committee, they will agree it, there could be some political work done in the background you’re not part off and then it has to go through Council, Scrutiny, Cabinet and leader/mayor. And sometimes, because of the politics it gets completely destroyed and you, as non-political officer, can do nothing about it. Of course this all comes to play on top of the structures you speak about in officer terms. However, it is all there for a reason.

  2. Last week some people sat round a table discussing the future of things inter and intranet shaped. One of the hurdles we’ve got is our current IT strategy that’s 80 pages of complexity. Anything that long is always going to prove difficult to get the support it needs at the highest level even if it meets all the challenge, critique and questions of those at a lower level.

    What we need is something like what you produced for the chief exec.

    The post seems to suggest that in order to keep a certain layer of management on side, and bought in, something else is needed, something potentially 80 pages long. The thing is, if something is good enough for your chief exec and your corporate directors, shouldn’t that be sufficient for the rest of the organisation?

    If your chief exec knew about what happened would she be content with the status quo. Where was the real value in that extra work?

    Of course it’s important to get every degree of management on board and involved but having to produce more words in order to do that seems like sticking a plaster on a broken paradigm. Surely the answer lies in a managerial culture that can cope with lightweight, but no less valuable, pieces of work?

    • localgov Says:

      I agree with this. It feels like that layer of middle-ish management is looking to justify its existence at every step and ensure that there is little in the way of too much progress too quickly, lest they be left behind or found to be surplus to requirements.

      The act of questioning things shows that they are reading reports, their call for more detail implies that they will continue to read it and the things they are asking imply that they know better than officers below them.

      Somehow along the way, it was decided that more words = better. It was only when I realised that a report was anything which reported a situation or idea that I became comfortable writing them. If that took 80 pages then so be it, but if I can do the same thing in eight then all the better.

      This skill (and it is a skill) however doesn’t seem to be appreciated most of the time…

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