A Faer Point: The value of transformation specialists in local government

Published: 14 December 2023


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A well-known proverb often comes to mind when I’m reading the many really concerning stories about section 114 notices, and straitened local government finances. You may know it – the advice is not to ‘spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar’. Interestingly, the ‘ship’ was originally a dialect form of ‘sheep’, who were treated with tar whenever they got small injuries or infections.

‘So what?’ retorts my reader, unable to understand why I’m banging on about shepherds when I should be focusing on today’s challenges. Well, to quote another proverb, there’s nothing new under the sun; and it surely makes sense to avoid making the same category of mistake as our rural ancestors.

I’m a passionate advocate for transformation as a stand-alone specialism. The COVID response vividly demonstrated the value of (often small, often overlooked) transformation teams, who frequently moved to the centre of their organisation’s leadership group. Their ability to retool and re-engineer legacy processes, and focus on new ways to achieve big-ticket outcomes, was in many cases absolutely key to the resilience of the council.

Here’s the risk. Councils are totally preoccupied with working out how to resource demand-led services ,and they have little or no bandwidth for the kind of system transformation that made such a difference in 2020. The leaders responsible for delivering these services are forced to be reactive and constantly problem-solving – which makes it very hard to occupy the optimistic, forward-focused mindset that’s needed to really innovate at a strategic level.

Alas, in the face of significant deficits, more than one authority has deleted specialist transformation posts which could well have helped to save many multiples of their cost over the medium term. If invest to save means anything, it must include building highly expert, creative powerhouses of transformation. Otherwise, to quote another well-known saying: ‘For want of a nail…’.

Ben Cox is Partner at Faerfield.
Originally published in the MJ, 14 December 2023.


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