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How do you get joined up working in a city council that operates in silos?

I saw such a question on a discussion forum recently, and this was my reply. It relates to a strategic balanced scorecard engagement with a UK City Council looking to create joined up thinking and working.

You have correctly spotted that city councils (we we call them in the UK) seem to operate like at least six different organisations. Eg social services, planning, education (children’s services) cleaning, Adult services, etc etc.

As a result they tend to adopt different cultures. They tend to be funded separately. To be measures separately. To have separate political ownership (different members). My experience is that in the board room, their discussions are often focused on their department rather than the collective as well. Hence silos.

So how to change this? One Chief Executive was willing to bite the bullet and insist that her Directors operate more cooperatively. The way we did this was three fold
a) Concentrate on objectives, not for the department, but for the community. Bear in mind, no user of their services sees them as separate departments. I just want the council to sort this out.

b) Then to ask which directors influence this. Classic customer faced thinking. So “I want to live in a safe community” was owned by the Adult services Director (who has drug teams etc,) the planning department Director (who design the environment that makes it feel safe), and the Contract Director (Who runs the street cleaning services that visit the street every week and clear up burnt cars and graffiti).

c) This meant that the three directors needed to talk to each other OUTSIDE the meeting and get their collective act together. It also meant that the Directors needed their staff to talk with other departments. Rather than re-organising (9 months work – elephants mating – large expense – no change) we insisted that the teams meet and worked together as well.

Another example is the corporate parent of a child in care. Again the responsibility is not just with Social services but adult learning and education and other parts of the Council. And in fact other services.

All this is about “Joined-up thinking and working”. We represented this in strategy maps for the council as a whole, before asking how each department contributed to the overall picture.

The client changed their business plans so that they were structured around these outcomes rather than departments. They actually realigned their political committees to reflect the same thinking and structure. They produced their business plans in 4 weeks after this engagement rather than 3 months with lots of effort and fighting in the previous year.

In the UK, the “Local Area Agreements” and “Local Partnership Boards” also encourages each of these departments of the Council to work with other agencies (eg Police, Health, Charities) as well. So this approach opens up the wider thinking.

However Central Government then scupper the idea. They may have similar objectives, but these parties (and departments) are given individual agendas to follow that are less joined up.

The catch is that central government often send out “strategies” and Incentives that are more silo based causing a localisation and separate approach to planning. For instance in one council I worked with the Children’s services insisted on following their own business planning approach “because we were so different and driven by the latest changes and legislation”. Of course this scuppers the issue and it takes a strong Chief Executive to say, “Oh no you don’t”

In addition budgetary pressures and the “10% cuts” approach causes each department to locally optimise rather than say, “If we did this it would save us both money and improve performance for our customers”. In one case I know Gershon (10% cuts by central government) scuppered all discussion of cooperation between departments.

So a strong tension is not just between the departments but that caused by central gov pressures.

The Chief Exec I worked with used this to ask her team to step up to the mark of joined up thinking and working as well as thinking longer term. It was no surprise to me that within 9 months two directors had changed and three years later only three of the seven were still there. (No names – no pack drill).

Strong Chief Exec. Bigger picture. Collective ownership and responsibility and individual delivery. And a willingness to stick two fingers up to central gov occasionally.

Hope this helps. By the way, this was a balanced scorecard engagement…..”

As you can see, it shows how looking at the bigger picture helps the organisation tackle the underlying performance management issues, with a strategic balanced scorecard.

Phil Jones