Taupo District Council

Pitching organisational change as a way of working rather than magic bullet, has turned Taupo District Council into an award-winning organisation.

No magic bullet for organisational change

Taupo District Council logo. Pitching organisational change as a way of working, rather than a magic bullet, has turned Taupo District Council into an award-winning organisation.

In 2010, it won the “building organisational capability” category in the New Zealand Post Group Local Government Excellence Awards. However, as Chief Executive Officer, Rob Williams, says, “This is a relentless process and you need to continuously focus on what’s working, what’s not working.”

The change process started in early 2007 when it became very clear that things weren’t working. Services were fragmented, staff morale was low, the community was disengaged, and there did not seem to be any staff buy-in to the need to control expenditure or restrict rates increases. And this was despite having print-outs of the organisation’s values on every wall. “No one was acting by them,” says Mr Williams. “Instead, what we wanted was an organisation living these values, taking ownership of change, and all the time seeking to improve.”

Effective means how well outcomes are achieved. Efficient means speed.

They decided to start with a blank canvas and set about looking into “what good looks like”. After talking to other councils and organisations here and overseas, and reading the literature, they came to the conclusion that no one model met their needs. They identified five performance areas to focus on: customers and service, systems and planning (including finance and processes), people and culture, leadership and vision, and communication.

These, combined with their organisational vision – “Building a community of trust by being the best we can” – and their original values, have formed the framework for making all decisions about the organisation – including a significant restructure in 2011.

The changes were orchestrated by a team of two working closely with cross-organisational teams to deliver on four work streams that have evolved since the process began in 2007. The first work stream involved enabling the organisation through developing and improving customer services, communication, finance, human resources, IT, and corporate planning systems and processes. This was soon followed by a work stream dedicated to helping the Council’s departments and teams improve the way they worked. Two later work streams address the organisation’s top risks through a quality assurance programme and deliver collaborative projects of organisational importance. “This structure has enabled us to approach challenges in a customised way while incorporating generic requirements, and they are all still going in some form or other,” says Mr Williams.

The Chief Executive Officer is closely involved in the programme – as project sponsor, its progress forms part of his performance review – as are the rest of the senior leadership team and Councillors, who receive regular updates.

Stakeholders are pleased with the results. Satisfaction levels with the resource consents team, for example, are over 90%. Staff ratings have improved from 56% in 2006 to 70% in 2010, and Councillors’ ratings have gone up from 45% to 69% in the same period. Increases in operating expenditure have been cut, from a 12% increase in 2007/08 to a 2.1% increase in 2011/12.

Mr Williams advocates having a framework in place for any organisational change as it “gives you something to bounce ideas off and measure against”, especially as it is a long process. “We didn’t appreciate the duration of this exercise. It really is the start of a journey, as sustainable change happens over years and decades.”

He also said having a “fuzzy but clear” organisational vision helped. “It is out there and aspirational yet it also is a clear message that this is the way we work.” It meant staff could relate to it, and interpret it, in a way that had meaning to them.

The other key to the programme’s success was keeping it “under the radar”. “We chose not to go out there trumpeting that we were embarking on organisational change,” he says. “Research showed that most organisational change projects fail – often because they are seen as the magic bullet, one-off initiatives, which fold quickly, and do more harm than good. Instead, we pitched it as ‘this is what we do around here’.”

Although the programme could be perceived as being a relatively inward looking exercise, the main theme of “building a community of trust by being the best we can” had a very “outside-in” goal whereby the results of staff combining forces to work for each other would result in a far better customer experience for the ratepayers and residents of the district. Results so far have shown that this has worked.

Based on an interview with Will Samuel, Strategic Manager – Business Development, on 18 June 2012.

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