Identifying and prioritising services for review

This article provides guidance for identifying and prioritising candidate services for review.


Service identification

Prior to conducting individual service reviews all council services and subservices should be identified, categorised and defined. This may be done by referencing existing documents such as:

  • Strategic plans
  • Operational plans
  • Policies and procedures
  • Service level agreements

Research has identified that the interpretation of the term ‘service’ for the purpose of reviews varies considerably between councils. Some councils define services at a broad level and select about 40 service groups or packages. Others break them down into as many as 200 to audit and analyse their services at a detailed level.

Services are typically separated into those that exist to serve internal customers, such as human resources and finance, and those that provide direct outputs for external customers, such as road maintenance and development application processing.

Some councils find it useful to further categorise their services into those required due to a legislative or statutory obligation (non-discretionary), and those where there is some discretion over their provision. It may be appropriate to group the services under themes used in strategic and corporate plans. Examples include governance, infrastructure, social, cultural, recreational and environmental services. The services can also be linked to the council’s key strategic directions. For example, waste management can link to community wellbeing or park maintenance can link to environment.


Service prioritisation

As there are typically many services for councils to review with limited resources, they should be prioritised for review. The prioritisation assists with the scheduling and resource allocation for the individual reviews.

The means for prioritising each service varies significantly amongst councils, depending largely on the aims of the review being undertaken. Where financial savings is a primary focus of a review, services tend to be prioritised primarily based on a ‘high-level’ assessment of saving or income generation potential. This approach is attractive if there is a desire to take some ‘quick wins’ during the review process. The size of the budget for each service may be used as a simple means of prioritisation as this usually reflects the opportunity for savings.

For a more comprehensive approach, it is recommended that a priority rating is assigned to each service. Consideration may be given to previous community feedback, to gauge the likely reaction to cutting or reducing services. This includes community surveys, strategic plans, and feedback received through community groups.

The following are examples of criteria used for rating each service. Weightings are usually assigned for calculating overall ratings.

  • Overall budget for service or net cost of service (after income is subtracted)
  • Service levels – potential to reduce service levels without generating significant community dissatisfaction (e.g. services with low importance & high satisfaction in community surveys)
  • Service delivery – potential for improvements &/or savings through alternative delivery models (e.g. service sharing, outsourcing, partnerships)
  • Internal operations – potential for improvements, efficiencies &/or savings through reviewing internal operations (e.g. changes to structure, resources, assets, processes, work practices)
  • Revenue generation – potential to generate additional revenue (e.g. increase in user charges, grants, new business enterprises)
  • Degree of discretion over the service (statutory / non-statutory)
  • Potential to generate expenditure savings
  • Potential for review to improve environmental outcomes
  • Potential for review to improve social outcomes
  • Potential to reduce duplication of services or activities
  • Potential to grow or commercialise the service

Services with built assets that have been identified as being in poor condition may also be given priority to ensure appropriate risk management strategies and decision-making processes are in place.


The SmartGov Team

Engaging with stakeholders when reviewing services

This article looks at various options for engaging with stakeholders affected by the service review process and/or its outcomes. Stakeholders should be involved throughout the review to provide information, analyse data, make decisions and evaluate success.

Key stakeholder groups can include:

  • Councillors
  • Management
  • Workforce
  • Community (residents, business and facility users)
  • Current service providers, and
  • Other councils or levels of government.

The form of engagement depends on the information required. Planning for service reviews should detail when and how the various stakeholders will participate during the review and what information will be shared.


Workforce engagement

Effective engagement with the workforce is critical for the success of a service review program. Gaining support and trust ensures constructive participation throughout the process.

The methods that councils use to facilitate staff engagement usually depend on the size of the council and the number of staff involved with each particular service. For a large organisation-wide review, a workforce engagement team may be established to assist with the internal communication and consultation throughout the program. The members should have excellent communication and facilitation skills, and be highly regarded by their peers.

Workforce engagement covers a range of information sharing and consultation activities such as:

  • Staff forums and presentations
  • Workshops
  • Newsletter articles
  • Feedback and suggestion boxes
  • Brainstorming sessions
  • Breakfast meetings
  • Lunchtime briefings
  • Internal surveys
  • Individual interviews

At the commencement of the service review program, it is recommended that the CEO or a delegate hold staff information sessions to outline the proposed approach and seek preliminary feedback. As the service reviews progress, further sessions can be held to reinforce the reasons for the review and provide opportunities for comment.

A successful way of communicating with all staff is through written updates in staff newsletters and/or fact sheets, outlining progress and providing key messages on how staff can be involved in the process. Councils can also utilised their intranet or blog space.


Elected members

Elected members can provide important input into scoping, community views, decision-making, review of recommendations and implementation of change. Involving the elected members, not only in the decision to undertake a service review, but also in the process to be followed, is essential for an optimum outcome.

Holding one or more workshops for the elected members is recommended to help identify key opportunities for a number of key services. Councillors are encouraged to think ‘outside the square’ and consider alternative options. The workshop outcomes can provide the service review teams with an indication of what the elected members would support in terms of reduced service levels.

The recommendations from the service reviews should be reported to Councillors for endorsement or for information. This may be incorporated into other standard reporting and approval processes, for example the annual budget or management plans.


Key internal stakeholders

For each individual service review, it is important to identify and consult with key internal stakeholders. This is a narrower perspective then the broader workforce engagement. These are specific staff who have a stake or interest in the service under review and who may be involved in or directly affected by the review. This includes subject experts who have a good working knowledge of the service.

Stakeholders are given the opportunity to participate in the review by providing suggestions, raising issues and discussing options. They may also assist with gaining efficient access to information such as current outputs, service levels, legislative requirements, constraints, historical information, etc.


Current service providers

Current service providers for individual services should be engaged as appropriate to ensure they:

  • Are aware a review is being planned
  • Can provide important information on the demand and costs of their services
  • Can respond to suggestions made by other stakeholders
  • Can provide their view of whether their service is valued by the community


Community engagement

Understanding the community’s needs is a prerequisite to effective service provision and delivery. Community includes individuals, community groups and business owners who use local government services or own property.

Community engagement is conducted to incorporate community needs in the review program, and to promote community understanding and ownership of the pressures that the council faces. Councils that engage with the community generally view this as integral to the entire process. The engagement does not replace, but rather complements, other forms of consultation with the local community.

A range of methods is used for consulting with the community including contact with key external stakeholders, user groups, interest groups, and online surveys. Where a council chooses not to directly engage with the community during the service reviews, community needs may still be taken into consideration when formulating recommendations. This can be based on staff experience, interactions with members of the public, past customer satisfaction surveys, and previous consultation when developing strategic plans.


The SmartGov Team

Undertaking service reviews through in-house teams

This article explores options for setting up teams for managing a service review program. The team structure and individual roles will differ depending on the size of the council. Below is a typical team structure for managing and resourcing an in-house service review program.

Steering group

Under this sample structure a Steering Group is assigned responsibility for providing overall direction and leadership for the service review program. It typically approves priorities and schedules, provides strategic input into service reviews, and endorses the final reports and recommendations. The Steering Group usually comprises members of council’s Executive Leadership Team. Other possible members include an elected representative, the chairperson of the Consultative Committee, and managers of core services such as human resources, corporate planning and financial management.

Project team

A Project Team may be established to coordinate the service review program across the organisation. This usually consists of two or three staff members, depending on the number and rate of reviews that are planned. The role of the Project Team usually includes prioritising and scheduling service reviews, establishing service review teams, providing guidance and support for the teams, checking service review reports, and monitoring and reporting on progress.

Service review teams

The Service Review Teams run the individual reviews on a day-to-day basis. There are various approaches to setting up review teams. Some councils use one team to review all services. This achieves a high level of consistency and is generally an efficient method. However, it requires a high commitment of full time resources, and can be onerous for the team members. It can also lead to general staff dissatisfaction and non-acceptance of outcomes.

Another option is for line managers and their teams to undertake the service reviews within their areas of responsibility. This is generally expedient; however it can lack independence and objectivity. An effective approach is to establish service review teams comprising representatives from across the organisation. This is generally more difficult to coordinate and requires a higher commitment to training. However, it usually achieves a higher level of staff involvement and ownership across the organisation.

Each Service Review Team is assigned one or a number of reviews. The teams are responsible for various activities including engaging with stakeholders, gathering information, benchmarking, exploring and analysing options, and preparing recommendations.

Review panels

An effective method for achieving independency and consistency is to establish one or more review panels. Each panel is usually chaired by a member of the Steering Group from outside the area being reviewed, and comprises two other senior staff. For smaller councils this could be performed by one person.

The service review teams present their data and findings to an assigned review panel. The panel is charged with challenging the service information provided, and identifying other options and opportunities for improvement.

A variation on this approach is to engage an external review panel from outside the organisation to provide a greater level of independence, and fresh input and advice to staff. The panel can assist with generating new ideas and innovative solutions, reviewing the work undertaken by staff, and challenging the thinking and views of staff.

Each Service Review Team is assigned one or a number of reviews. The teams are responsible for various activities including engaging with stakeholders, gathering information, benchmarking, exploring and analysing options, and preparing recommendations.

Review panels

An effective method for achieving independency and consistency is to establish one or more review panels. Each panel is usually chaired by a member of the Steering Group from outside the area being reviewed, and comprises two other senior staff. For smaller councils this could be performed by one person.

The service review teams present their data and findings to an assigned review panel. The panel is charged with challenging the service information provided, and identifying other options and opportunities for improvement.

A variation on this approach is to engage an external review panel from outside the organisation to provide a greater level of independence, and fresh input and advice to staff. The panel can assist with generating new ideas and innovative solutions, reviewing the work undertaken by staff, and challenging the thinking and views of staff.


The SmartGov Team

Adopting a formal service review framework

Organisations approach service reviews in various ways. Some are at a very high level while others drill down into much detail. Councils usually tailor their reviews to meet their individual circumstances and objectives. This is understandable as individual councils are unique in their level of resources, political climates, demographic profiles, and organisational cultures.

Achieving best value in the delivery of services is not a static state as circumstances are continually changing. It is therefore appropriate that service reviews not be a ‘one off’ exercise, but rather be part of an ongoing improvement journey. They should be undertaken progressively throughout an organisation in a systematic manner, in accordance with identified priorities. The service reviews should be integrated with other key organisational programs including corporate and strategic planning, asset management, and organisational performance management.

It is also beneficial to take a ‘council-wide’ approach to reviews to maximise any available opportunities. Both internal and external services should be covered, however a greater focus may be placed on discretionary or non-statutory activities.

A selection of ‘cross-functional’ processes may also be included that extend across a number of services. This has the added benefit of preventing departments from simply shifting problems to other areas. Pilot service reviews are also useful for determining the effectiveness of the processes before commencing a full review program.

The scope and rigour of the reviews can vary significantly. Our research has shown that the timeframe for conducting a program of reviews across an organisation typically ranges between 6 months and 2 years. Individual service reviews can last from as little as 6 weeks up to 2 years. The implementation of review recommendations can extend beyond that period.

A sample framework for the systematic review of local government services is illustrated in the diagram below. It identifies seven phases to an effective service review. The order of the phases is indicative only and can be tailored to meet organisations’ specific needs. Some phases continue throughout the service review program while others are repeated for individual service reviews.