The iron triangle of aged care

Many years ago, when I was running my first small CD production business, I unwittingly stumbled across the ‘iron triangle of project management’. Many of my customers were creative musicians who had poured a lot of time and effort into recording their first album, they had booked a launch for their first ever CD release, but they didn’t actually have the CDs yet. These customers wanted everything done yesterday, they wanted it to be perfect, and they didn’t have a lot of money.

Iron triangle of project management

Time, cost, scope – the iron triangle of project management

I joked with my colleagues we should put a sign on the wall: ‘fast, cheap, good – pick any two.’ It was only many years later, working in the corporate world, I realised this was the essence of the ‘iron triangle of project management’.

Project quality can be determined by three factors: time, cost and scope. In any project something has to give, so you have to prioritise:

  • You can make it fast and you can have lots of features, but that usually costs a lot of money
  • You can have lots of features and make it cheap, but you might need to wait a bit longer to get it finished
  • You can get it done fast and cheap, but you probably need to cut back on the scope…
  • …and so on – you get the idea.

While, the ‘iron triangle of project management’ still applies in aged care, we also work within our very own ‘iron triangle of aged care’, which is a bit different. I’ve found this applies to community aged care in particular, but also disability services, residential care, and probably a few other types of government funded services.

Iron triangle of community care

Revenue, expenditure, compliance – the iron triangle of community care

Here, the points of the triangle are:

  • Revenue: which is set by the government through funding and subsidies
  • Expenditure: which is set by the government through the award; most aged care providers will tell you around 80-90% of their expenses are salaries, so the award pretty much determines their expenditure
  • Compliance: which is piled on by a number of government agencies; in aged care it’s Department of Social Services, Department of Health and Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission. These three agencies don’t necessarily talk to each other or coordinate the compliance burden in any way.

I floated the ‘iron triangle’ last year, at a CEO forum hosted by Grant Thornton and LASA, and a slightly mangled version made it through to the final report, Perspectives on the Future of Ageing and Age Services in Australia.

You will probably realise immediately, in a situation where revenue and expenditure are determined by outside forces, by definition, profitability is also pre-determined.

Just like the iron triangle of project management, something has to give. It’s not really sustainable to juggle all three points, revenue, expenditure and compliance. It’s a delicate balancing act, requiring constant compromises, and sometimes it goes wrong.

The Aged Care Roadmap, published in 2015, claims to be the Australian Government’s guiding document for the direction of aged care policy. It says:

The Aged Care Roadmap sets out the path to a system where people are valued and respected, including their rights to choice, dignity, safety (physical, emotional and psychological) and quality of life. They (together with their families and carers) will have access to competent, affordable and timely care and support services through a consumer driven, market based, sustainable aged care system. [original emphasis]

Note the emphasis the Roadmap places on the last three points: consumer driven, market based and sustainable. You will probably immediately recognise, any system where the government determines both revenue and expenditure is not market based. It’s also probably not sustainable or consumer driven.

The Roadmap lists key features of the aged care system of the future, two of which are:

Sustainable aged care sector financing arrangements where the market determines price, those that can contribute to their care do, and government acts as the ‘safety net’ and contributes when there is insufficient market response
Consumers will be primarily responsible for their accommodation and everyday living costs, as they have been throughout their lives. Providers will determine how much they expect consumers to pay for their accommodation/everyday living, and care/support costs. Government will set and publish reasonable prices it will pay on behalf of consumers who cannot afford to fully meet their own costs. Consumers’ lump sum payments will be protected.

Greater consumer choice drives quality and innovation, responsive providers and increased competition, supported by an agile and proportionate regulatory framework
Consumer protections will include core standards, compliance and an independent complaints mechanism, with providers required to meet core standards based on their registration category and scope of practice. Government will have a more proportionate regulatory framework that gives providers freedom to be innovative, whilst ensuring a safety net for consumers. Platforms will exist for providers to market their services, including by demonstrating the quality of what they deliver beyond these consumer protections. Consumers will drive quality and innovation by exercising choice as to which provider/s they use.

These are reasonable ideas, in theory, but they are not real.

Customers currently have an expectation their aged care needs will be fully funded by government. That’s the way it has been in the past. A common comment from a client might be something like this: “I’ve paid taxes my whole life, never relied on any sort of welfare, it’s only fair for me to be able to get something back, now I can’t work anymore.” If government seriously intends to move to a user-pays system, where providers determine price, it needs to communicate that change to the community. For obvious reasons, the government does not want to do that.

Similarly, the current Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety gives no indication at all of moving us to a “more proportionate regulatory framework that gives providers freedom to be innovative, whilst ensuring a safety net for consumers.” Although the Royal Commission is still in progress, so far the response from government has been more ad-hoc compliance decisions, made on the run, with no consultation, and rushed, poorly thought-through implementation, leading to perverse outcomes and incentives. I’d love this to change, but I’m not holding my breath…

So, what’s the solution? Well, the Aged Care Roadmap seems, on the face of it, a fairly reasonable plan. I’m sure the people who worked on it were smart people. And for it to work, ALL the elements must be in place. Politicians love to do this. Governments commission very smart panels of experts to spend months or years looking at thorny intractable problems and make recommendations. Then they try to cherry-pick only the recommendations that suit them, and ignore key parts of the solution, because they’re politically unpleasant or hard to implement.

In fairness, it’s not just governments. When I ran my own consulting firm, I found clients would also try to do this.

The solutions in the aged care space are well understood and have been out in plain sight for a long time. The iron triangle tells us, if we want a high quality aged care system, which is fast and responsive to people’s needs, we have to find a way to pay for it. We can wriggle around this uncomfortable truth all we want, but it won’t go away. We either need to get more money into the aged care system, or we need to accept a reduction in quality or longer wait times. We also need to remember the pressure for funding is increasing, because the proportion of elderly people needing care is growing faster than the proportion of workers paying taxes to cover the cost.

There are only a few ways to do address this funding squeeze: bring more user contributions into the system; divert government money away from something else; pay more tax; or some combination of the three. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. If you want to solve a hard problem, you have to be willing to make hard decisions and do hard work to make it stick.

What balance of time, cost and quality are we, as a community, willing to live with?

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20% x 100% = happiness

“There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.” ~ Mark Twain

Pie graph showing the are basically two types of human beings

The are basically two types of human beings… From:

You know that type of person who says “There are basically only two types of people…”? This is usually followed by some incredibly broad generalisation, which is likely to offend about half the people in the room.

Well, pretty early on in my management career I decided there are basically two types of employees:

  • People who can parachute into almost any situation and who will figure out what to do and thrive and produce great work
  • Everyone else.

And, more specifically, I decided people in the first category share a specific set of attributes. I have spoken to many professional recruiters and HR specialists who agree it’s more important to choose attitude over technical which you’re hiring new staff. I believe the best staff share a combination of personality types or attitudes with technical skills or competencies.


  • They are internally motivated to do everything to a high standard
  • They are interested in learning and continually pushing themselves to do better today than they did yesterday.


  • They know how to find information and ask questions if they feel like they don’t know something
  • They like to know how they are going, so they constantly look for ways to objectively measure their own performance.

During the course of my working life, it’s been my great pleasure to work with a number of people with these basic characteristics, and I firmly believe these people can do almost anything they put their minds to.

The reason is simple – they intuitively apply the Deming cycle to everything they do. When they arrive in a new job, they quickly make a plan, they start doing what they planned, they check their own progress against some objective measures, and then they come up with ways to improve what they just did. No one has to tell them to do this. They just do it.

People like this are a joy to work with. They are self motivated. They say ‘yes’ a lot. They ask a lot of questions. They make a lot of suggestions. They come up with solutions to tricky problems. They don’t usually waste a lot of time trying to accrue praise or status for what they have done, because they have already objectively measured their own performance, so they already know they’re doing a good job. And they are intrinsically interested in what they do, and they derive internal satisfaction from learning new things and doing them well.

I once had the pleasure of working with such a staff member, who was expressing her concern because she didn’t feel like she’d been very productive that day. I laughed and told her “You don’t need to worry, on your worst day, you do more than most people do on their best day.”

In most organisations these achievers are the 20% percent of the staff who do 80% of the work. In some industries and organisations the percentages might be a bit different. What do you reckon the ratio is in your workplace?

So, how cool would it be to work in a place where 100% of the staff are in this category? What kind of workplace would that be?

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Aged care Royal Commission – let’s make it count

Over the weekend the Federal government has announced a Royal Commission into aged care.

This has been partly triggered by the horrible footage which recently emerged from a residential care facility in Sydney’s North Shore. This has been reinforced by the ABC Four Corners report into residential care.

Even though these reports have focused on residential facilities, on the other side of the country, images like this tarnish the reputation of our entire industry.

Some aged care workers may find themselves feeling anger and frustration, because the actions of a few will inevitably shake people’s trust in the aged care sector.

Some workers in the aged care industry may feel the announcement of a Royal Commission is an unfair, cynical attempt by the new Prime Minister to distract attention from the internal turmoil within his own party.

Even if that is partly true, the aged care industry needs to embrace the coming Royal Commission. The truth is, we who work in aged care and disability care have a moral duty to look after people who are struggling to look after themselves and who sometimes don’t have a voice.

For me, one of the most profound experiences of working in aged care is the feeling of looking into my own future. If I’m lucky, I may live long enough to be the age of my clients, and may one day need aged care. So when I’m dealing with clients, I’m constantly thinking in the back of my mind about providing the sort of care I would like to receive.

The vast majority of people working in aged care work so hard to provide the best possible service for their customers. The vast majority of aged care staff understand the important responsibility of caring for vulnerable people. For these aged care workers, the events in the recent videos are very upsetting.

Good people who work in aged care are constantly struggling to do the best they can within the confines of the ‘iron triangle’ of aged care:

  • We work with a fee structure which defines how much we charge our clients – which is set by government
  • We work with an award which defines how much we pay our staff – which is set by government
  • We work with an accreditation system and a set of aged care standards which tell us how we must do what we do – which is set by government.

As a result, many aged care providers are constantly striving to do the best they can, within a very specific set of constraints which make innovation difficult or virtually impossible. How can we be surprised the industry is sometimes struggling to implement contemporary, evidence based best practices?

Having said that, we must not pass the buck. It is vital as an industry for us to come together and hold ourselves and our industry accountable. We must not try to defend the indefensible. We must denounce poor behaviours when we see they are clearly falling below the standards we expect.

  • Yes, many people who work in aged care are there for the right reasons and genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of the people we care for
  • Some people who work in aged care don’t get it, and should not be there
  • Sometimes the pressures of time and resources in the industry create perverse incentives, which make it easier for people to do the wrong thing and sometimes make it harder for good people to do the right thing.

As an industry, we must treat this current scrutiny and the coming Royal Commission as an opportunity for learning and growth. Let us all take a long hard look in the mirror and make an honest appraisal – are we happy with what we see? Let us show some real leadership and work with our customers and with government to co-create some genuine, meaningful solutions to make our industry better. Let us put out hands on our hearts and be able to say with pride, we treat our elders the way we would like to be treated when we are their age, one day.






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Today was a very important day

You’d all be aware by now today was a very significant day – the results of the government survey on marriage equality were announced and 61.6% of the Australian people voted yes.

The results of this announcement were some colourful and emotional celebrations all across the country, as well as an assurance from our Prime Minister marriage equality will be legal by Christmas.

If 61.6% voted yes, statistically, there’s a fair possibility 38.4% of you reading this might have voted no. Whatever your personal views on marriage equality may be, please allow me to share why I believe this issue is significant and relevant for the community care sector.

First and foremost, community care is about empowering people, and helping them live in their own homes with autonomy, dignity and respect. The central pillar of consumer directed care is people having choice and control over their own lives, with sensitivity to whatever makes that person special and individual, including culture, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

So I believe marriage equality is strongly in alignment with the ethos of consumer directed care.

Secondly, it’s statistically inevitable some of our clients are LGBTQI. Many of our older clients would have grown up experiencing prejudice, discrimination, confusion, shame and even hate crimes.

For all those clients, this must be a hugely important day.

Finally, I understand ECHO likes to benchmark the quality of the care it delivers by asking – ‘would this be good enough for my Mum?’ Well, as it turns out, my Mum has been in a loving, stable relationship with another woman for many years. So, if we’re going to deliver service good enough for MY Mum… Well, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it.

Back a few years ago, I had the honour of officiating at the marriage of two very good female friends – one of them went to school with my lovely wife, Kim. At that point their union had no legal status, so the fact I wasn’t a legal marriage celebrant didn’t matter.

This December, just before Christmas, Kim and I will be travelling to Sydney to celebrate the wedding of two more female friends. We’re hoping this time their marriage might receive the same legal status as ours.

If you voted no and you’re still reading, please know I respect your views, and thank you for bearing with me. Someone you know, someone in your family or circle of friends, or maybe one of your clients, was celebrating this historic day so, even if you don’t agree, I hope you can feel some happiness for them.

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Today was a very weird day…

My nephew rang me to tell me my brother, his dad, died this morning. I was getting ready for work. I hadn’t even had breakfast.

… at this point, I need to make it clear, I’m not writing this to get lots of online hugs. Today was a day of valuable, positive lessons, and I feel compelled to share them. But you have to hang in there ’til the end … then maybe you can tell me what it all means…

How do I describe how sad I was to hear my brother is dead? I cried this morning, with my loving wife and two amazing daughters cuddling me, feeling the warmth and affection of my family, at the same time as feeling the deep pain of losing a part of that family.

The scary part is I didn’t even know my brother was sick until about a month ago. He broke his arm and when the doctors tried to figure out why his bones were so brittle, they discovered secondary bone cancer. His wonderful wife asked for some privacy and space, which I respected. I thought I’d get a chance to see him before he died. I was wrong. He went into hospital and never came out.

So the first lesson of the day was very simple and direct: none of us really know how long we have on this planet. We can make all the plans we want, but make sure we’re living the life we want right now, because it might be all we have.

My second whack of news came shortly after, when one of my work colleagues told me an amazing woman we knew had committed suicide around Christmas time. They told me she had been very lonely. I found myself reviewing my last few meetings with this lady and realising she’d been reaching out to connect. Could I have given her more? Could her death have been avoided if I’d just understood what she needed?

Then I caught up with someone I hadn’t seen for 20 years. Last time we met, we were both living on the East Coast. The circumstances which brought us back together, 20 years and 4,000kms later, were also a bit weird.

… usually the universe works on cycles of time and scale which are just so enormous, we can’t possibly even begin to comprehend them. But do you ever get the feeling, every now and then, a little ripple comes through and maybe we can just feel the edge of some sort of pattern lining up? Even though we have no idea what it means, we can feel it’s there? Do you ever have that feeling? I certainly had that feeling today…

My friend from NSW 20 years ago told me the third very sad story of the day. I won’t share the details, because it’s not my story to share. Let’s just say she’s been having a really rough time. She described the last few years as ‘chaos’. As I listened to her story I found myself wondering: what could I do to help? Every day I’m privileged to work with organisations serving people in severe need – homelessness, drugs, disability, domestic violence, mental health, refugees, trauma, sexual abuse, aged care, dementia, you name it. So I figure I should at least be able to connect her with the support she needs.

But what about our personal connection? Especially after hearing about the recent suicide, I found myself wondering – how much can I give? I know I don’t have any answers. I can’t fix anyone’s life for them. I know we all have to choose our own path. So how much is enough? What can I actually do to make a difference?

All this is overlayed by another layer of weirdness, because I’ve been here before. The whole reason I came back to Perth, from NSW, 20 years ago, was to help a close friend in very similar circumstances. Have I slipped into some sort of timewarp? Have I learned anything? Can I do a better job this time around?

Suffice to say, I didn’t get tonnes of work done today. At least not that sort of work. I tried.

My wonderful wife, Kim, checked in to see how I was going, and suggested we head out for dinner with the girls. And that’s when a whole other level of learning kicked in. As we strolled down Beaufort Street, into Mount Lawley, the girls went running into Planet Books, which they love, and we bumped into some fantastic friends near the entrance.

Then we went somewhere we’d never tried before for dinner. We danced to jazz in the toilets (you kinda had to be there to appreciate it, but it was really fun) and I finished off dinner by sharing Nutella fondue with my two daughters.

On the way back, as the girls barrelled back into Planet Books, we bumped into another old friend at the entrance (forget Tinder, to meet cool people, just hang out in book shops). I found myself thinking, ‘Our girls must think we know a lot of people’.

By now the youngest kid was getting very tired, so Kim carried her, while I carried our eldest daughter upside-down, through the middle of Mount Lawley.

There were other little moments today, too. Like coming back to the office to find someone had sent me flowers after hearing about my brother. And heading into the gym at 10.30pm, to take it out on some weights.

And you know what…? Today should have been a disaster but, in the end, it was a bloody good day. I’m still really, really sad about my brother. Every time I think about it I have to hold back the tears. I don’t how long that will last, but it’s going to be a while. And, at the same time, I’m so incredibly grateful to be surrounded by such an amazing family, and to have so many really, really cool friends. I’m blessed to live this life. I don’t know how long it’ll last. I hope it’s a long time, and I hope I see a lot more of all of you. Let’s catch up soon, while we can.



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Not for profit mergers vs corporate mergers

The community not-for-profit sector is buzzing with talk about mergers at the moment. It would be easy to spend a day just talking about why people are considering mergers, and the structural factors at work in the sector at the moment, but let’s save that for now.

Instead, I just wanted to share a few thoughts about mergers in the community sector versus mergers in the corporate sector and highlight a few fairly obvious points of comparison.

Corporate sector

Mergers are frequently used in the corporate sector, where share price and shareholder dividends provide a clear way of measuring increases in shareholder value. There are lots of specific motives behind mergers, which can include:

  • integration along the supply chain (buying your suppliers or customers)
  • increasing market share (buying your competition)
  • tax benefits
  • acquiring new technologies
  • entering new markets…

In each case the underlying driver is generally about creating a new larger entity which is greater than the sum of the parts – in other words 1 + 1 = 3.

It’s worth noting in the corporate sector the word ‘merger’ is a bit of a euphemism. In reality, it’s nearly always an acquisition, where a larger company acquires a controlling interest in a smaller company. In the corporate sector the market’s response to a proposed merger is often telegraphed very clearly through the share price of the participating companies. The share price of the smaller, target company often spikes up rapidly, and the share price of the acquiring company can spike up or down, depending on what the market thinks about the merits of the deal.

These market fluctuations create massive financial incentives for mergers to occur, as investors stand to make large gains, or losses, in the short term and over the longer term, if the merger creates lasting shareholder value for the acquiring company.

Interestingly, studies in the corporate sector (Agus 2000) have shown such acquisitions typically create large gains for shareholders of the smaller, target entity being acquired and small losses or marginal gains for the larger, acquiring entity. However, even though a bad acquisition can destroy shareholder value over the long term, the activity itself nearly always creates an opportunity for individual investors (who might buy and sell shares in both companies) to make large gains in the short term, so the market tends to incentivise merger activity.

There are also specific individual incentives for the executives of the participating companies. While the maths suggest the CEO and several executives from the target company are likely to become surplus to requirements, they usually benefit handsomely from the deal, are rewarded with a highly lucrative golden handshake and gain kudos for having steered their smaller company to a successful sale, which has generated high returns for their shareholders.

Community sector

So how does all this play out in the community sector?

Instead of ‘shareholders’ not for profits have ‘stakeholders’ and instead of a share price the Boards of the participating NFPs have a duty to create social value for those stakeholders. Calculating social value is much trickier, and there’s no market mechanism to provide minute-by-minute updates. Social return tends to unfold over a much longer period.

The activity of a merger does not inherently create social value. On the contrary, while a merger must create long term social value for stakeholders to be worth doing, in most cases the activities of bringing a merger together can be seen as tedious distractions from the main business of delivering social services, which almost certainly reduces social value in the short term, while the merger is happening.

And what about the CEOs? The impact of any NFP merger is usually felt most at the top of the organisational chart. The number of front line staff is unlikely to radically change. There may well be opportunities to achieve efficiencies in the coordination and management of those staff, especially through the use of better technology and systems, so there may be some reshuffling in the middle tiers. But, at the top, at least one CEO and some upper management are highly likely to drop from the top tier to the second tier or become redundant.

So, while the incentives to consider an NFP merger are the opportunity to create long term social value for stakeholders, there are lots of short term disincentives for individuals within the participating NFPs.

This is summarised in the table, below.


NFP vs corporate mergers: short term and long term incentives and disincentives

When you boil it down:

  • The corporate sector offers both short term and long term incentives for M&A activity. Any downside unfolds long after the merger has occurred, by which time everyone has already moved on to the next one.
  • In the community sector, all the potential benefits for a merger are long term social benefits, which are hard to measure at the best of times, while there are plenty of very immediate, tangible disincentives for the executives who stand to lose their jobs.

When you look at it like this, it’s pretty clear NFP mergers are best approached with a great deal of sensitivity and caution. There needs to be a pretty compelling long term benefit to justify the short term pain. I’ve been involved in a few such mergers and I’ve found the motivation to shift from talking about it to actually doing it often arises because one or more of the participants is facing some sort of crisis and a merger becomes the ‘least bad’ option.

At the same time, it’s worth noting the courage of those NFP leaders who do forge ahead, and who are bold enough to see and commit to the opportunity to create social value for their stakeholders, ahead of their own self-interest. Perhaps we should think about ways to reward them for their foresight and fortitude, and actively encourage such leadership behaviours?

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Coalition to abolish ACNC and repeal charity definition

ACNC – dead-end or too early to tell?

Speculation about the future of the ACNC came up at a recent Board meeting, and again at a business gathering on Friday. No need to speculate any more, the Coalition has stated it will roll back the establishment of the Australian Charities and NFPs Commission and accompanying reforms, if it forms a Government.

The Coalition’s typically hyperbolic claim that: “The ACNC is predicated on the belief that Australia’s charities and not-for-profits are doing something inherently wrong and need greater government oversight,” is patently untrue.

The sector had been asking for greater consistency and the original proposals paving the way for the ACNC were welcomed with some optimism. 

However, sadly, but also predictably, so far the ACNC has underwhelmed with its early delivery. And it’s also true, so far the ACNC has resulted in more administrative overhead, rather than less.

I’m interested in what others think: is the current ACNC a dead-end or is it just too early to see any real results from such an ambitious reform agenda? Please post your comments below. I also posted a poll in the LinkedIn NFP WA group and will report back with the results.

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Red tape

‘Reducing red tape’ has been a hot topic between not-for-profits and government agencies over the last couple of years. The Western Australian Government has been driving a ‘free market‘ approach to encourage NFPs to be more entrepreneurial and innovative in the way they deliver value to the communities they serve.

Similarly, the Commonwealth Government has recently created the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) with the promise of – among other things – standardised reporting for NFPs across the country and reducing red tape.

Professor David Gilchrist, a respected supporter of NFPs from Curtin Business School recently took the brave step of questioning the rhetoric in the ‘red tape’ debate, on LinkedIn.  David argued administrative process is a necessary and important part of any business and offered a definition of ‘red tape’ as being processes “that are:

  • valid but the results of which are not used by an organisation – perhaps there is a lack of capacity (knowledge and resources) in terms of applying the results; 
  • valid but inefficient – that is, an administrative process should be undertaken but new technology or better processes might reduce its cost; 
  • the cost of which outweighs the value it produces – for instance, a stock take where the value and quantum of stock is miniscule; or 
  • that is invalid (that is, it might be an anachronism, it may be that it is redundant or simply that it is not required or the results of it cannot be utilised by the organisation or its managers). 

In other words, Red Tape reduction is entirely appropriate where the cost of administrative process outweighs the benefit to an organisation.”

David makes a good point. There’s a risk we throw the ‘red tape’ label around too easily and it’s a convenient way to attack any administrative processes or policies we don’t like.

In 2010 the working groups tasked with converting recommendations of the Economic Audit Committee into policy discussed this issue of ‘reducing red tape’ at length and we came up with lots of examples of all four types of red tape you’ve listed above.

  • Requiring a hard copy of your NFP’s annual report every time you apply for a grant – even though you may have made many applications that year and the grant organisation already has multiple copies on file.
  • Collecting pages of detailed data from an NFP when there is no evidence of that data ever being used in any way.
  • Badly written documents asking for the same information to be provided three of four different ways.
  • Etc… I’m sure readers working in NFPs and government agencies can cite more examples.

So, while it’s true, we should guard against lazy misapplication of the ‘red tape’ label,  continue to collect data to inform policy, and we will always need good governance, at this stage in the conversation we still have so many efficiencies to gain by reducing red tape, it will be a fair while before we need to worry about overdoing it.

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Customer service cultures

Last year I had a couple of experiences highlighting why social researchers suggest people are becoming disengaged and cynical about government, and also why people often say rude things about public servants. To me they are very powerful examples of organisational culture.

The Tax Office

Link to ATO website

Examples of organisational culture in action:

I recently received an email purporting to be from the Australian Tax Office (ATO). The email was well presented, with an authentic looking ATO logo and header, but a link in the email looked a bit suspicious, and I thought it was probably a phishing scam of some sort.

So I decided to call the Tax Office to find out if this had come from them.

Some of you will already be rolling your eyes, thinking that was a stupid idea on my part. And that’s sort of my point, we are so used to organisations like the ATO being painful to deal with, most of the time we won’t even bother, unless there’s some sort of threat of a fine or jail time. Even then, most people would rather pay an accountant to avoid having any direct contact with the ATO.

And, sure enough, the person on the phone conformed sadly to the stereotype. I explained my situation, described the email I’d received, and the person on the other end explained that such an email “almost certainly” didn’t come from the ATO, as they “generally don’t send emails like that.”

Notice the qualifications?

The conversation bogged down when I pushed for an improvement on ‘almost certainly’.

Eventually I let out a deep sigh as I asked: “What will it take to get a straight ‘yes-or-no’ answer?”

And this is where the cultural observation kicks in. This person had clearly been trained to rigorously avoid making any definitive statements about anything to a customer. Hedging was his default mode of communication. Should we be surprised at government staff behaving this way, when we see their bosses, politicians, do it every day in the media?

Supreme Court of Western Australia: Probate Division

Link to Probate Division of the Supreme Court of WA

Examples of organisational culture in action: Probate Division of the Supreme Court of WA

How many people do you think die in Australia? According to the ABS, there were 143,500 deaths registered in Australia in 2010. That’s nearly 400 people per day.

So you might think the Probate Division of the Supreme Court of Western Australia would be running like a pretty slickly oiled machine. After all, they are dealing with bereaved people at a time of loss. You might think they would have some well designed, finely tuned processes to minimise the hassles and stresses for people who are burdened with the sad task of managing the estate of a deceased loved one or relative?

You might think they would handle this difficult task with a fair degree of empathy and sensitivity for their customers?

Again, you might also think I’m an idiot for expecting such things from a government legal department?

I won’t bore you with the details of repeated visits the office to lodge documents, asking the staff if I had completed them correctly, to be told “We don’t provide legal advice,” then having the documents rejected and again asking the staff for clarification on what was required, to be told “We don’t provide legal advice.” After a few rounds of this, the whole process takes on the quality of surreal, Kafkaesque parody.

Whenever I encounter this sort of situation, I always wonder what it’s like for the people on the other side of the counter. Surely these people have experienced bad customer service too. Do they ever make the connection with their own work? Would they really like to do a better job, but they feel it’s not possible? If so, how does that make them feel?

Again, the cultural observation: why do we accept or even expect an organisation like the Probate Division of the Supreme Court is likely to combine the worst of State Government bureaucracy and legal red tape to produce a culture with almost no focus on the needs of its customers?

What are the leaders of these organisations doing to allow or encourage these cultural norms to thrive? What would it take to change them? If we, as customers, accept these cultural stereotypes as the norm, are we also tacitly condoning them?

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Money as a motivator

Stack of money

Stacks of money (from

There was a very active discussion in the Linked:HR forum recently about the importance of salary in engaging employees. Lots of experienced HR professionals made comments to the effect that ‘money is not the most important motivator’.

This idea is tossed around very freely, and there have been some studies to support it, but it requires a very important qualifier.

I coached a person who was earning $250k and he went after a $150k CEO role in the nonprofit sector, because the new role was better aligned with his values. On the other hand, I’ve also worked with a guy earning $60k who quit a job because he felt undervalued, he and his wife want to have a family, and he needs at least $80k to support them.

So – this is basic ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs 101’ – if you have enough money to take care of your basic needs, you can afford to think about other things, like self-actualisation. If you are in ‘survival’ mode, self-actualisation might seem like a distant luxury and money definitely can become your most important motivator.

This means a ‘one size fits all’ approach to remuneration is unlikely to work for everyone in your organisation. When you think about engaging and retaining staff in your more junior  or lower level roles, salary is probably a much bigger factor than it is for staff in your mid and more senior level roles.

When you think about remuneration for staff in different tiers of the organisation, you might also want to think about how this impacts on their basic living requirements in different ways.

ANSON offers a range of services to help you develop competitive remuneration and total employee engagement strategies for your organisation. If you’d like to discuss any of these in more detail, please contact me or visit the ANSON website.

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