Change fatigue: how local governments can help staff

Increasing pressure on councils is being felt at all levels but there are steps that managers can take to support staff, writes Sophia Symeou.

Local government has seen considerable change in recent years, which has had a substantial impact on its workforce. Indeed, many people working in local government are experiencing change fatigue.

Councils and their workforces face the constant pressure to meet the growing demands from the communities they serve with ever-tighter budgets.

Pressure on local government can be felt at all levels. Not all councils are created equal when it comes to accessibility to funds and many are appointing general managers with high levels of commerciality to increase their bottom line and stretch their dollars further.

The size of the community and the attractions an area holds such as tourism, national parks or industry dictates the council’s capacity to raise capital while still meeting the expectations of the community.

Workforce costs are a large portion of a council’s budget and can attract increased focus during times of reform, amalgamation and change. This pressure is inevitably felt at all levels of the workforce and has a significant impact on staff.

Shifts in council work

In response to these pressures, councils are increasingly adopting digital transformation to streamline their processes and create innovative ways to deliver services. After a long history of delivering services directly to the community, digitisation represents a massive shift in the mindset of council workforces.

Many local services are pursuing a digital overhaul like rates portals, automation in libraries and real time alerts to customers. Some are transforming into a digital workplace with the tools to effectively work anywhere, anytime.

While many of these changes are positive improvements, council employees – particularly those who are longstanding – may find themselves feeling unsure of their roles within their organisation and unclear about how they should go about their work in this new world order.

‘Whirlwind of unrest’

In addition, councils have been through a whirlwind of unrest to their structure and funding since the proposal of amalgamations in 2015. Councils had mixed feelings about the amalgamations with some putting their hand up to merge and others fighting it all the way to the courts.

The dust is only just starting to settle as the issue of amalgamation has subsided. This has added to the mental and emotional fatigue experienced by council workforces who were uncertain of the future of their organisations and their roles therein.

There are, however, many examples of local and state government overcoming these challenges and turning the situation around.

Many councils are coming to the realisation that you can fight employee fatigue with employee engagement. I see many councils doing a great job of implementing staff incentives and offering workplace flexibility to increase employee engagement and satisfaction.

Combating fatigue with engagement

A shining example of overcoming fatigue with engagement is the Canterbury Bankstown Council, which has taken a holistic approach to its amalgamation.

Since May 2016, the council has implemented a comprehensive organisational change program to transition the two former councils and create their new culture. The foundation of this program has been built on a commitment to strong staff engagement. There has also been a heavy focus on creating the new culture with employees.

Failure to bring two disparate cultures together is the one of the biggest reasons why many mergers fail.

Fundamental to reducing change fatigue was not making assumptions about how employees were feeling and what they wanted. The council conducts surveys to identify key issues and provide a way to measure improvements. Significantly, it has responded to survey results in tangible ways. For example, after overwhelming feedback on the importance of health and safety it developed a safety and wellness roadshow.

Two key strategies caught my interest.

The first was placing some of their key executives on the ground rather than tucked away in an office. In this way, they could hear and see first-hand what was needed, and respond in real time, which ultimately builds trust.

The other was a great initiative called “Ask Andy”. Andy is a long-standing employee who was appointed as a key advisor to senior leadership. With over 30-years’ experience in the community and council, Andy served as the trusted voice of the broader workforce and constantly went from site to site talking to staff and taking their ideas and concerns directly to management.

Having worked on and observed countless mergers and restructures, the work done by Canterbury Bankstown Council executing such a coordinated and multi-faceted approach is truly impressive.

Sector-wide initiatives

More broadly, Local Government NSW is working to bring unity and transferability to the sector’s workforce through the Local Government Capability Framework.

The framework is an excellent roadmap to support councils to collaborate and share their knowledge, resources and expertise, deepening employee engagement and richness of experience at work. Councils such as Bayside and City of Sydney are showing just what you can do with an integrated capability framework giving other councils the confidence to adopt or adapt the Local Government Capability Framework for their own needs.

The NSW Government also sees the value in inter-council collaboration through Joint Organisation Networks, which enable councils to work together on issues important to regional communities. For instance, Namoi Councils Joint Organisation are forging a path forward exploring how they can benefit their region as well as their respective councils. Namoi consists of Gwydir Shire, Gunnedah Shire, Liverpool Plains Shire, Moree Plains Shire, Narrabri Shire, Tamworth Regional, and Walcha Council. These councils vary in size, wealth and focus and yet have made a commitment that together they can be stronger.

This model also supports transferability within local government putting in place positive strategies that combat the causes of fatigue.

Sophia Symeou is the chief executive officer of INS and has worked with Local Government NSW on the capability framework.

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