A recent study, commissioned by the County Councils Network (CCN), suggests that the amalgamation of two-tier areas into county-based unitaries could potentially save £2.9bn nationwide and on average up to £106m per county.
The promise of increased efficiencies, cost-savings and value for money that results from these mergers is of course highly attractive, but there are also inherent risks and challenges involved when different organisations collaborate or streamline services.
The success or failure of JMASS (Joint Management and Shared Services) projects also have ramifications for staff. Poorly communicated changes lead to internal frustrations and perceived lack of direction. If integration of different teams is mismanaged it can cause unnecessary stress and create a culture of fear that could last for months, if not years.
So how can local authorities ensure that any partnerships not only reassure personnel but also deliver maximum benefits to taxpayers in the shape of reduced costs and public service transformation?
There’s no question that managing any successful merger or acquisition, whether in the private or public sector, can be complex. One area that can significantly improve the chances of an effective working relationship is process management.
Whether it is two local authorities becoming one or a group of housing associations that wish to pool resources, effectively capturing and managing the critical process know-how of all organisations and stakeholders is a key step. It ensures that the newly formed alliances and/or entities are stronger, more nimble and better placed to perform and meet their objectives. It helps teams understand they are now one organisation, working together to develop one way of doing things.
Early engagement is crucial
A structured approach to identifying, retaining and leveraging future best practices should start as early as possible. Forward planning and preparation can have a significant impact on the levels of collaboration.
Key teams should be tasked with examining the existing processes within individual organisations and identifying preliminary ways in which they might be brought together. At this point a central process management tool should be used to support the transition. Gathering the new post-merger processes into a central place sets a solid platform for all parties to understand the new processes, and to contribute to changes as they are bedded in.
The recent Hay Group report entitled, Lifting the Barriers: Effective collaboration in health and local government states that a common trait amongst those that enjoy high performance from joining forces is ‘they look for shared language and terminology to describe the issues and the solutions as a way of breaking down organisational barriers and getting everyone on board’.
Involving all organisations in a process review programme can provide the ‘lingua franca’ or common bond that can potentially bridge any divides, encouraging positive participation, camaraderie and trust. Securing early buyin from key staff members can also influence others around them.
Finding common ground and agreement on how the task of process management should be approached will determine whether existing approaches need to be reworked or whether a fresh approach is required.
Give everyone a voice
Like any major change, a coming together of two or more organisations can be extremely disruptive and staff are often understandably anxious about how things will operate in the future. Inviting as many staff as possible to contribute to the process mapping, review and recommendations for improvements can give them a greater feeling of ownership over the transition.
It shouldn’t just be senior executives making unilateral decisions – everyone should be encouraged to express their ideas under a new structure. Online process management tools can provide a feedback mechanism and a control point to work through opportunities identified from across different parties.
At this stage it is also important to recognise that there is no hurry to implement everything immediately and it may make sense during any transition for separate systems and processes to continue while decisions regarding future platforms are finalised over the longer term.
Streamlining processes – lessons from down-under
The importance of understanding and implementing the right processes during a merger is something that several councils in New South Wales, Australia have already experienced.
Take Gosford City Council that was preparing to join with neighbouring council Wyong. Continuous improvement officer at Gosford, Virginia Cross knew that undertaking due diligence was an essential step. The council used process mapping software to gather all processes into one space so that all staff could access them and contribute to future process improvements, picking and choosing the best of both worlds. According to Ms Cross, including staff has helped turn the change into a positive, giving them a feeling of ownership over the transition.
Similarly Queanbeyan City Council, who merged with Palerang Regional Council, was able to document and collate all former councils’ processes into an inventory. Untangling the process webs of the two organisations could have been a daunting task, however this was simplified by using an on-line process management tool and introducing new standardised processes, with variations where necessary. The use of process variations was particularly important when it came to health and safety standards that needed to be followed.
Each workplace has unique or different requirements and two merging councils face a wide range of regulations that need to be standardised but also maintain an element of flexibility.
As organisational excellence officer, Damian McFarlane at the merged council explains: We needed the ability to create standard, or base-line processes, and then add variations to cover different scenarios or work streams. We’ll have an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for, say, manual handling, and a variation for lifting manhole covers or lifting things into trucks. Now when each team logs in, they see their common SOP, and then they can pick the relevant variation.’
Maintaining best practice
The adoption of a business process management tool ensures that agreed processes are actually used, rather than simply becoming merger documents that are consigned to a filing cabinet. Moving forward staff will need instant access to new process know-how, and a simple means to provide feedback to resolve process issues.
There will be many process tweaks and updates needed for months after the transition to successfully bed in new processes.
Once the initial changes have been implemented and the newly formed organisation is operating as a single structure, focus must then shift to sustaining the new processes and incorporating a best practice process management culture. It is at this point that process owners should be appointed to monitor processes and to encourage ongoing collaboration, teamwork, reevaluation and re-creation where needed.
The bottom line
Effective process management plays a critical role before, during and after a merger or joint collaboration, by providing an easy to understand language and methodology that enables once disparate groups to come together to assess and manage the impacts of change, and to express their ideas for the future.
Through careful planning and consistent implementation, mergers and acquisitions can deliver more than just the benefits of scale, maximising the value that organisations can collectively offer to become greater than the sum of their parts.
Through early engagement, knowledge sharing and access to a centralised hub of process excellence local councils can foster a culture of innovation and on-going improvement, leaving them in a stronger position to deliver financial sustainability and to thrive in an environment dominated by funding cuts and uncertainty in a post-Brexit world.
Ivan Seselj is CEO of Promapp