So often, local governments are subjected to the question: are we delivering services at the lowest possible cost? Strategy exercises are led by consultants who present deep financial and time analysis, and ways to simply make the status quo cheaper. Or worse, they propose scaled back services. Residents, on the other hand, tend to want better services.
Instead of approaching reforms based purely on cost data, local governments AND residents would be well-served by using the approach outlined in “Bringing Science to the Art of Strategy.” By running strategy ideas through the steps of identifying conditions for success, and then identifying barriers to choice, local leaders can truly understand which ideas will be acceptable to the public. Moreover, by identifying a savings goal, and seeking ideas from staff throughout the organization, leaders might find acceptable ideas that do not impact public-facing services.
Let’s say the goal is to save $100,000 per year within City Parks. Very obvious options might include closing a public pool or reducing recreation center hours. For those to be truly excellent options, they must save City Parks the $100,000. They may very well do that, but there is a major barrier to choice, and that is that residents may not be willing to accept a pool closure or fewer hours for exercise and programs. The City would be well served to ask those questions to residents in the form of a poll or focus groups. Having that conversation would benefit the City, as well as the community. Such transparency helps people understand the true cost of services. It combats the pervasive “magical thinking” of wanting more for less. Ultimately, I do not think that closing a pool or reducing recreation center hours would be acceptable to the public.
However, by soliciting ideas from staff, City Parks may be able to find cost savings in internal processes or staffing in a way that does not impact the public. One example might be to improve procurement practices and contracting to save money on building and pool maintenance. Or, staff might suggest that the City seek foundation or corporate grants to supplement critical recreation center programs. From a cursory glance, these options have far fewer barriers to choice, and could achieve the stated goal of saving money.
The “possibilities” process outlined in “Bringing Science to the Art of Strategy” would be an incredibly beneficial tool for local governments looking to save money, without compromising services to the taxpayers.