Transforming local councils

Wordle of the Innovation FrameworkMost local authority chief executives are heavily engaged in transforming their councils, in response to the resourcing pressures. Could they be doing more to achieve radical innovations more quickly and more successfully?  From our recent interviews with 12 chief executives from larger authorities we believe many of them could.

We found that many chief executives were doing some of the things that encourage innovative working across an organisation, but that few had a comprehensive and systematic approach to fostering innovation.

How were chief executives encouraging innovation?

Most chief executives were optimistic and positive about the future.  They had all consulted local residents about future priorities and supported politicians in agreeing their councils’ ambitions.   Most had identified the major areas for radical innovations. Many had been striving to get the ‘right people’ in their top teams.   Many talked passionately about the importance of honest, two-way communication (with employees, service users, residents and partners). All were conscious of the importance of employee morale, and the challenge of maintaining it given jobs losses and other major changes. And most were encouraging managers and employees to think about how they might ‘do things differently’. All were engaged in a range of cross-organisational and cross-boundary initiatives. And most had systematic ways of driving and tracking progress, to deliver new initiatives–with many highlighting the importance of their programme and project management systems in turning ideas into reality.

So what more might they do?

Not all chief executives were:

  • Developing explicit politically supported policies on managing risk, including a no blame approach to intelligent failures.
  • Working on getting the pace of innovation right, including creating as many positive moments as possible.
  • Ensuring that their managers had a deep understanding of their services users’ aspirations and priorities.
  • Deliberately attracting, retaining and making the most of employees with the skills and attitudes required to implement innovations.
  • Working with unusual partners, such as people from the creative sector.
  • Ensuring that organisational practices encouraged innovation.
  • Safeguarding time for reflection and creative thinking.
  • Recognising, rewarding and celebrating innovations.

And very few were:

  • Ensuring that a major proportion of top team (politicians and senior managers) time and effort was focussed on achieving major innovations.
  • Putting innovation processes in place, appropriate to each service.
  • Ensuring that managers successfully operated these processes.
  • Protecting those working on radical innovations from day to day work and organisational pressures.
  • Involving ‘leading’ service users and front line staff in innovation processes.
  • Looking at new places for fresh ideas, e.g. the creative sector, the private sector, other countries.
  • Employing sufficient people with expertise in: a) innovation processes and b) the opportunities provided by latest new technology and social media.

Taking a comprehensive approach

To capture the key actions chief executives can take to support and accelerate innovation, we’ve created a ‘Local Council’s Innovation Framework’:  The current Framework is a draft, so please let us know what you think of it by 28th February 2012.  Post your comments below or email them to:

What next

In late March, having reviewed your comments, we will issue a revised version of the Framework.    Under each of the factors, we will be adding quotes from chief executives as well as examples of the actions they are taking.  We will also create an anonymous electronic benchmarking tool, so that chief executives can compare their scores against different aspects of the Framework.

We will be using the Framework as the basis for more detailed research with frontline staff in two or three councils.  If you would like more information about what this please email: or ring: 0779 2952 498.


Published by

Joan Munro

I worked in local government for many years, latterly leading the Local Government Workforce Strategy. I have done research in many areas including on: achieving cultural change; increasing organisational productivity; successful organisational redesign; cross-boundary working. Currently I am researching how local councils can accelerate organisation-wide innovation.

5 thoughts on “Transforming local councils”

  1. I’ve worked for a few local authorities, and I think chief executives could get massive improvements by being brave, releasing control, and trusting staff more. Rather than trying to force innovation, create conditions where innovation can flourish. For example:

    • Stop trying to control departments and staff with targets. I have worked for a number of departments where managers are obsessive of making sure those red and amber ‘dashboard lights’ turn green, and they can go to the next board meeting having made up enough numbers. This stifles and, in many cases, eradicated innovation. Managers and their staff put all their efforts and creativity in to meeting their targets (which are normally arbitrary or do not reflect what is best for the customer) and making the numbers. It creates an organisation culture where it is more important to impress the boss than innovate and do what’s best for the customer.

    • Each service area instead needs decide and focus on its purpose (i.e. its ‘raison d’ etre). Importantly though, this purpose must be defined from the customers point of view. That way manager and staff motivation and creativity can be used to innovate in doing what’s best for the customers, and improving service.

    • Trust front line staff to innovate – they are much better placed to know what will work and how to make real improvements. Chief executives need to remove the bureaucracy and chains of command that make this and long-winded process, where the best ideas and innovations become tampered with and diluted.

    • Focus on the long-term innovations. Too much time is spent looking for quick wins (normally so they can impress the boss). Although normally well intentioned, these quick wins often do not take in to account longer term unintended consequences that will often create worse problems than the ones they solve.

    • Focus innovation on giving good service and not on cutting costs. Savings should be a consequence of providing a customer focused service. If you innovative ways to do what the customer needs, and none of the other pointless stuff, costs will drop. If you slash budgets service gets worse and costs go up from having to deal with everything that goes wrong.

    • Encourage the dissenters. Chief executives love positive people (don’t we all), and by being positive you do well at most local authorities. But this is another example of creating a culture where it is more important to impress the boss. To be innovative you first need to be honest and realistic about where things don’t work and challenge the status quo. If this is done at most local authorities the person is either labelled as someone who is not positive, and managers are too scared to report problems to the boss. Staff should be encouraged to find problems – the innovation can them come from solving them.

    • Encourage experimentation and failure. In a culture of quick wins to impress the boss, failure is frowned upon. But this is the whole point of experimentation – to learn from mistakes. This should be encouraged.

    I’m happy to discuss any of the above in more detail if asked 

  2. It’s not an excuse but don’t forget the added dimension of the political environment. Some politicians don’t like failure of any sort as it presents an opportunity of attack from the press, opposition, their own colleagues. A start point would be to include members in this process. By their very nature politicians at all levels tend to think short term and quick wins – particularly in the last year of tenure.

    We have also been audited to death for years by people who did not understand that innovation can be a positive experience even when it fails. The black and white assessments of councils have stifled any sort of stepping out of the shadows into unchartered waters of creative solutions.

  3. Really important points. Politicians need to identify the key areas for innovation. They need to be centrally involved in planning any major innovations. They need to agree risk policies that encourage staff to take any well thought through necessary risks, as part of experimenting.

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