On an exciting future for Cornwall, reducing the cost of indecision and talking to white people about race.
An exciting future for Cornwall
The Council’s strategic directors have been holding a series of briefings to update all staff on where the council is heading and seek feedback. It was great to hear the IS team called out for keeping everything working as we shifted thousands of people to home working and rolled out tools to help teams work virtually. The briefings were hosted using these tools and allowed live surveys and Q&A. I think I actually prefer the online version of Q&As. It felt safe to post questions, natural to give support to questions raised by others and efficient to use the time to address the questions which were most popular.
I like the open and honest way that we are looking at how we should work in the new world we find ourselves in. Staff will have an input but, obviously, the priority needs to be on serving the people of Cornwall1. The environment, social justice and technology all have a high profile. We also want to hold on to our new agile ways of working. The crisis created an opportunity and need to try out new things but, hopefully, we have learnt some enduring lessons we can use as we come out of the emergency.
Reducing the cost of indecision
Like all councils we are entrusted with a significant amount of money so that we can provide or coordinate vital services in our area. All organisations have to balance supply with demand and income with expenditure and it is hard to get the governance and controls around this right. Here are a couple of examples:
- Procuring an asset creates an obligation to maintain and, eventually replace, the asset but these are funded and controlled in different ways. The whole IT industry is relatively immature in this2.
- Controls can achieve some of our goals at the expense of others. For example, we can encourage and trust people to make decisions which affect their work but then not give them the spending authority to put their decisions into effect.
All types of organisations have these issues but, councils have to work with much smaller tolerances than the central government and private sector organisations I have worked with. Sometimes this can have unintended effects.
Imagine an investment in a major IT system. This could represent a significant portion of a council’s budget. Financial controls may demand this is ratified at a senior level. Executives struggle to grasp the options and the uncertain trade-offs between them. IT specialists struggle to express their insight and experience in a way the executives can understand. It takes a long time to work through this communication process and, because people haven’t recognised that it is a communication process, there is no allowance for the time and effort. This time and effort is expensive in itself but can be dwarfed by the value of postponed benefits or the cost of maintaining current operations while a decision is made. It does not take much for this cost of delay to exceed the difference in cost between the options being considered. From here on the process is threatening rather than protecting the organisation.
There is lots more to do in this area but this week I have spent some time:
- highlighting the human aspects of governance and controls such as understanding your audience and considering things like trust and confidence
- using story lines and visual aids to help people understand the options they have (or don’t have)
- translating and simplifing the insights and experience of our engineers so that non-specialists can understand their advice and recommendations.
In future I hope to do more on:
- showing where taking a risk is better value than taking more time
- treating governance and control as part of the design process rather than something to bolt on at the end
- involving the decision makers in the team rather than try to “sell” the team’s ideas to them later
- making sure people are clear about their role (it can seem like there are lots of accountable decision makers but most of the people involved are really providing advice or assurance).
A word about a good cause
I am part way through Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge3. The book evolved from an exasperated blog post and retains that emotional and personal edge. I am probably just the same as the people that provoked Reni to write her blog post so I am pleased she has kept going but it isn’t a comfortable read. It is a book we need but I wish we didn’t need it.
6 weeks on from the killing of George Floyd, social media and news feeds are moving on to other topics4 and it will get easier for people like me to drop back into a comfortable status quo. Fortunately, we have a lot of control over what we see through social media5 so I expect to stay uncomfortable about racial injustice and my part in it for quite a while. This isn’t a substitute for action but it is a pre-requisite.