Reviewing internal operations

A key aspect of a service review is the examination of the internal operational components that relate to the service. This helps ensure internal efficiency is optimised and the required outcomes are achieved in the best way possible.

A formal review of the structure, systems and processes that are involved in the delivery of a service provides the opportunity to identify direct cost savings, service level improvements, reductions in resource usage, etc. Some examples of service aspects that could be considered include the following:

  • Examine the areas of the organisational structure that relate to the service, e.g. a centralised versus decentralised approach to service delivery. From how many different locations is the service delivered? Should they be combined? Should ‘like’ services be co-located?
  • Examine the relevant processes, procedures, work practices, and tools. This includes analysing key processes to identify process gaps and opportunities for improvement. Look for opportunities to automate processes using technology, etc., and consider reducing red tape, duplication of activities, and overly complex processes.
  • SmartGov can provide further information on the many formal business and process improvement techniques that are available to support decision-making and extract maximum efficiency in a robust and consistent manner.
  • Explore ways to optimise staff productivity, e.g. redesign jobs to increase the variety of tasks and improve job satisfaction, review working hours, review overtime levels, recognise excellent service, provide incentives and rewards, provide training, measure outputs, and monitor progress.
  • Review regulatory controls and lobby for legislative change to improve efficiency and maximise productivity.
  • Explore methods to optimise or reduce resource usage. This may include rationalising and making better use of assets or infrastructure associated with the service, e.g. reducing the number of assets by combining some and selling others. Assets such as community halls and buildings facilities could be sold, leased, consolidated, regenerated, and/or shared.

As a guide, facilities meeting the following criteria may be underperforming and possible candidates for disposal:

  • Under utilised, both in terms of number of people and proportion of time
  • Small number of community sectors using the facility
  • Low level of community support and community involvement
  • Duplication of other nearby facilities
  • Poor accessibility (parking, public transport, disability access, etc)
  • Poorly matched to the demographics of the area
  • Services not suited to the zoning of the area
  • Adversely affected by external noise
  • Adversely affected by traffic in the surrounding area
  • In poor condition (structural, mechanical, fire and essential services, kitchen)
  • Present a significant maintenance burden in future years due to the condition
  • Present high risk to Council
  • Relatively low income from usage
  • Require high expenditure to bring up to current day standards

The SmartGov Team


When reviewing services it is recommended that benchmarking is conducted with high performing organisations (both private and public) to compare the council’s services against best practice.  A range of areas may be benchmarked including service outputs, levels of service (quality, timeliness, etc), costs, processes, work practices, resource usage, technology, and user charges.

There is considerable variation amongst councils in the extent of benchmarking conducted across services. As an example, for the operations areas extensive benchmarking of service costs may be carried out, while for other services there may be simple comparisons of measures with other local government teams.

When identifying possible opportunities for improvement, areas may be explored where performance is low, relative to costs. Benchmarking may initially cover only service levels to inform the next step in the process. Subsequent benchmarking of service delivery methods and internal operations could then be carried out after levels of service have been reviewed.

A range of internal benchmarks can also be useful, such as comparing:

  • Current and prior year actual performance
  • Prior year budget to actual financials
  • Whether the cost of the service has risen more than the Consumer Price Index (CPI)
  • Whether the staff component of the service has risen more than the CPI
  • Whether the unit cost of a particular service is increasing or decreasing, for example, the cost of child care per child or per staff member.

Councils that critically consider alternative modes of service delivery, such as outsourcing, shared services and joint ventures may rely on the benchmarking of their services as a means to assess the viability of the available options.

Consideration should be given to the timing of benchmarking activities. Benchmarking too early in the process can create confusion, and benchmarking too late may not provide sufficient learning opportunities. As an example it may be appropriate for the Service Review Team to firstly spend time defining the purpose and the outputs of the services.

The SmartGov Team

Exploring alternative service delivery models

When reviewing services, alternative models for delivering the services may be explored to ensure the most appropriate methods are employed. Effort should be focused on key opportunities that have the potential to generate significant service improvements, savings or income. The range of methods that are available for councils include:

  • Shared services or resources – typically with other councils or regional organisations of councils (ROCs)
  • Strategic relationships – with other levels of government or non-profit organisations
  • Use of ‘arms length entities’ to manage the service e.g. the corporatisation of parts of Council’s operations, or external boards for managing community facilities
  • New entrepreneurial ventures or enterprises – delivering services as an income source
  • Joint ventures or public/private partnerships – with external enterprises
  • Community run enterprises – including social enterprises such as charities
  • Outsourcing – through the use of external contractors.

Shared services and resources

The potential use of shared services has been considered in a number of national and state inquiries into local government. All identify that shared service models play a useful role in improving the financial sustainability of local government. They can be a cost-effective way for councils to share resources, tackle common tasks, or take advantage of economies of scale.
Many different kinds of shared service arrangements have been implemented across Australia. This includes a regional approach through the use of Regional Organisations of Councils.

As a guide, services meeting one or more of the following criteria may be suitable for service sharing:

  • Require high degree of expertise
  • Largely self-contained
  • Can realise economies of scale
  • Non-strategic, low risk, rule-based services
  • High volume transaction processing
  • Services requiring access to the latest technology

It is also useful to consider shared services where one council is unable to attract or retain staff skills in a particular discipline and another council has spare capacity, such as in engineering design or development assessment.

Strategic relationships with government or non-profit bodies

Research indicates that delivering services through a strategic relationship with other government or non-profit bodies is not regularly considered in service reviews. One reason for this may be that candidates for this type of arrangement tend to involve significant pieces of infrastructure, such as regional sporting or cultural facilities. The opportunities for these types of projects tend to be identified outside the service review process.

That said, there are opportunities that are worth exploration, particularly where additional or improved services are being considered. As with shared services, the key to the development of a successful strategic relationship lies in there being an opportunity where both parties are able to extract a benefit.

Arms length entities

Arms length entities are established with a clear separation from the council. An advantage is the increased opportunity to operate outside the local government framework and constraints associated with legislation. It is a method of reducing conflicts of interest between the regulatory and provider roles of a council. It may also reduce financial risk to public funds, and enable the engagement of the necessary commercial and corporate expertise.

Property leasing and land development are good examples where the establishment of an arms length entity can deliver an alternate income stream for a council. It is common practice for local authorities to place their commercial activities under separate companies that are controlled by external Boards.

When considering opportunities for the establishment of an arms length entity, the focus is generally on obtaining a commercial return on the investment, and does not necessarily rely upon expertise within the council.

Business enterprises

The consideration of opportunities for new council owned business enterprises may be included in service reviews where one of the objectives is to seek alternate sources of income to contribute to the council’s financial sustainability. As distinct from the arms length entity approach, these types of enterprises generally stem from the provision of an existing community service that is provided by the council.

When considering options for a new business enterprise, a feasibility assessment should be undertaken. Examples of criteria that can be used are provided below:

  • Is there a niche or emerging market with limited competition? Is the service different and easy to distinguish from what others provide? Does the council have a significant competitive advantage over other businesses such as technical expertise, or economies of scale?
  • Is it relatively easy and low cost to establish the business activity and enter the market? Are there minimal political barriers, low regulation, low capital outlay?
  • Is the business aligned with current council operations? Are there existing available council resources, for example facilities, property, skilled & experienced personnel, plant & equipment, systems?
  • Is the business likely to be financially sustainable? What are the long-term prospects of the business, taking into account future market potential and the impact of external factors?
  • Does the business provide an overall community benefit for the local government area (economic, social, environmental, wellbeing)? Does it support the area’s strategic objectives? Does it add value to services the council provides (expansion/improvement)?
  • Is there a relatively favourable level of risk exposure in entering or trading within a market e.g. technological, insurance, and legislative?

Public private partnerships (PPP’s)

PPP’s usually involve a partnership between the public sector and private sector for the purpose of designing, planning, financing, constructing and/or operating projects that would traditionally fall within the remit of the public sector (council). Infrastructure projects are prime examples.

Research has identified examples where service reviews have identified opportunities from PPP’s that are not as reliant upon the delivery of expensive infrastructure. As an example, one council was able to dispose of its sewage effluent through a PPP with an adjoining landowner who committed to reusing the effluent for irrigation.

Opportunities for efficiency improvements can arise from service reviews through exploring a joint venture approach. Viable opportunities tend to be borne from the ability of joint venture arrangements to deliver benefits from economies of scale, and examples have included:

  • Regional waste collection contracts (where neighbouring councils partner in a single contract)
  • Cooperative, joint tendering contracts

Community run services and enterprises

A community enterprise is a business owned, controlled and used by the people who live in a particular geographic area. Many community enterprises in Australia are incorporated as co-operatives. Membership of a community enterprise is voluntary and usually open to the general public.
Community enterprises have seen a resurgence in recent years. A growing number of rural towns across Australia are turning to community enterprises to provide new services, or to save an existing service that can no longer be supported by the council.

Examples of community run services include community gardens, nurseries, festivals, sports facilities, and cemetery operation. Often there are untapped commercial skills within a community that could be utilised to add value to council activities. Profits from community enterprises may also be ploughed back into the local community or reinvested in the businesses.

Outsource to external providers

There are internal and external influences when considering a viable outsourcing option, and these include: the senior management and political appetite for outsourcing, whether the council is a major employer in the community, the availability and competitiveness of external service providers, and the level of control that is required over the service, amongst others. These factors will determine whether ‘outsourcing’ can be genuinely considered in a service review.

The following criteria can be used as a guide when assessing the suitability of a service for outsourcing:

  • Largely self-contained – services not closely linked to other services or functions;
  • High economies of scale – services with high production volumes and highly standardised;
  • Non-strategic or ‘non-steering’ – services that do not have a high impact on strategic direction;
  • Low complexity and rule-based – services that are easy to specify and monitor;
  • Changing or specialised technology – services involving high capital and ongoing technology costs;
  • High supplier availability – services with large numbers of potential suppliers or contractors;
  • Cost competitiveness of the service.

Before making a decision to commit to outsourcing a service, consideration should be given to any social responsibility the council may have as a major employer in the community. This is particularly evident in remote and regional centres. The long-term costs and benefits should also be carefully considered, along with any loss of control (over future costs or quality) that may come once you have sold off assets and shed associated staff resources.

The SmartGov Team

Assessing alternative levels of service

This article explores the process for considering alternative levels of service (LOS) and comparing them with existing levels. LOS are the measures of outputs a customer receives from a service. Defining and measuring LOS are integral to a council’s performance management and strategic asset planning processes.

The first step is to understand and document the existing LOS. This may be expressed in terms of quantity, quality, timeliness, reliability, responsiveness, and accessibility. An example is ‘how long does it take to deliver the output and how long do people wait?’

When reviewing LOS, it is important to consider community and customer needs. As an example services rated by the community as high satisfaction and low importance may be candidates for reducing LOS.

The fundamental question that is being considered is: ‘what level of service should be provided by the council?’ This is separate to the question: ‘how is the service to be delivered?’ which is covered in a future article. The broad options to consider are:

  • Provide no service (i.e. discontinue the service)
  • Provide a lower LOS (eg reduce frequency of outputs)
  • Provide the same LOS
  • Provide a higher LOS (eg increase quality of outputs)

The LOS is expressed under each of these options, to enable a comparison to be made and selection of an optimum LOS for each service.

Research has shown that it is a very difficult for service review teams to consider and justify reductions in service levels. The natural tendency is to retain or increase service levels due to the constant demands for improved services. To help drive the assessment of the lower LOS option, a target reduction in the service annual expenditure may be set (eg 20%).

The following are examples of issues and implications to consider for each option:

  • What will be the effect on meeting statutory or regulatory requirements? Are there alternative ways of meeting these requirements?
  • What will be the effect on community outcomes, eg average grass length may increase and affect sporting events?
  • What would be the likely community reaction to the change in LOS? Reference should be made to previous community surveys and feedback to gauge the reaction.
  • Will there be long-term consequences in relation to the council’s strategic directions, eg environmental, economic, and social wellbeing? What will be the effect on meeting the identified strategies, actions, objectives and targets identified in plans?
  • Are there feasible alternative non-council means for meeting the community’s needs?
  • Could community members efficiently make their own arrangements, taking into account the cost and complexity involved with private arrangements?
  • Are there other agencies authorised to provide the service? Do authorised agencies currently provide the service?
  • Are there alternative private providers eg privately owned pools and carparks?
  • Are there commercial reasons for providing the service, eg income generation? Would a reduction in service level and expenditure lead to an adverse effect in terms of income generation?
  • What will be the effect on council resources? Will there be changes in staff positions and potential industrial relations issues? Will there be a change in asset usage or a need to dispose of assets? Will there be an effect on other support functions?
  • What will be the financial implications?

The SmartGov Team