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How agile is your council?

This article was first published at

PA Consulting has conducted research into the leaders of private companies about agile working. Now, in partnership with The MJ, it has focused on local authorities to establish how agile they are by polling key council managers across a wide range of services, primarily adults and children’s social care, housing, environmental services, regeneration, corporate and community and covering all tiers of local government. Most were at the sharp end of organisational change, being either heads of service or senior managers and a quarter described themselves as middle managers.

The survey of council managers showed that while 60% of their authorities have undertaken organisational initiatives, only half thought them effective. There was a clear pessimism about the level of their authority’s agile working – with a majority agreeing their organisations are still traditional.

Being agile is a key aspiration for private sector organisations and increasingly it is also top of the agenda for local authorities. But what is organisational agility? In a nutshell it is recognising the value that flexibility can bring to change as well as the opportunities it provides and the positive impact on citizens and staff. However, achieving organisational agility requires a fundamental shift in an organisation’s culture, values and behaviours.

The picture was of councils coping poorly with change programmes. More than half agreed that local authorities were struggling to keep pace with change, 80% felt that the impact of digital change on their workload was getting ever faster and that just over half admitted they were better at day to day delivery rather than implementing major change programmes. An overwhelming three quarters blamed pressure to deliver within short term budgets and political cycles while half also blamed a risk averse culture and siloed departments making change difficult.

Despite these shortcomings half the council managers felt they were slightly ahead of other parts of the public sector in change implementation. Asked about how fast they thought their authority was in implementing change compared to other public service organisations, 40% of respondents thought they were fast and even slightly faster than other public sector bodies while 10% thought they were ‘significantly faster’. Just over a quarter (28%) thought they were about the same while a gloomier 16% thought they were slightly slower and 6% believed they were ‘significantly slower.’

So, what therefore are the brakes on implementing change? An overwhelming three quarters blamed pressure to deliver within short term budgets and political cycles. Almost half also blamed departmental silos and projects as a barrier to cross-functional working, with a third saying on the contrary this was not a problem. A risk averse culture was also a block to change, named by just over half with just over a quarter disagreeing. Only 28% blamed complex management structures as an obstacle and about the same percentage, 27%, dismissed a lack of a clear vision and strategy as a factor. A small majority of respondents (56%) also rejected the idea that they failed to understand their customers’ needs with only 18% agreeing this was an issue.

One key ingredient to successful change is the ability of an authority’s leadership, to which there was a lukewarm response. Respondents were asked their views on whether there was a ‘lack of clear vision and strategy from the leadership team’. Almost half (46%) agreed of which 6% strongly agreed while in contrast 36% disagreed with the statement ‘my authority’s leadership understands the level of change needed to improve but is struggling to act or doesn’t know what to do’.

The MJ/PA survey also asked respondents about the degree of feedback they seek from their residents during change programmes, involving the service user in the process. Asked if they always sought it regularly before and after launching a new service, 57% said they did while only 29% said they did not. Exploring the citizen view even more, they were also asked for their views on the statement ‘we encourage our citizens to play an active, co-creative role in our innovation and service improvement processes’. A third said they did not. Only a minority however actually ‘continuously re-prioritise’ their services based on data analysis of residents’ needs with just under half saying they did not and just under a quarter (24%) saying they did. Sometimes it is easier to stick to the same services for a long period to avoid disruption with 39% of respondents admitting this was the case but 36% saying it was not (and almost a quarter having no view).

It is fair to say that while most councils have begun agile programmes, a majority still operate traditional management styles, structures and processes, find it difficult to keep up with technological change and feel held back by short-term budget pressures and election cycles. The very events that organisational agility can help prevent causing organisational paralysis are still the biggest barriers to adopting new behaviours.

Did you know the top 10% of financial performers are 30% more agile than the rest?

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