What makes a good council?

Annalisa Haskell

What separates good councils from the not-so-good?

Collaboration. Innovation. Initiative. All three elements create good business in any sector. And it’s exciting that growing numbers of councils across Australasia are adopting this credo, putting themselves in charge of shaping the future of local government, individually and as an entire sector.

For a long time we have been having the wrong conversation about local government. We have focused too much on deficiencies, and on individual or state differences.

With all the noise of reforms and the tensions of the NSW structural amalgamation debate, we have endured too much angst, too many opinions and far too many misleading anecdotes about what makes ‘good local government.’

There is a better debate to be had. Many councils are increasingly embracing a more evidence-based, informed insight approach to provide not only a local or even regional perspective, but also a national overview. Local government leaders are understanding that a more business-like discussion is essential to driving better decision making.

In this new monthly column in Government News I hope to provide local government professionals with a forum for more constructive discussion. We urgently need a national discussion, to focus on the real issues facing the sector and to bring councils together to create their own efficiencies and sustainability – without hidden agendas.

No one really understands local government

Councils do the same important job and provide much the same range of services across Australia and New Zealand. But how they do these things can differ – in shape, amount and nature. Taking a limited view of just a single or even just one state can miss the bigger picture, and the potential to learn from each other.

The past five years has seen our association deliver local government a unique performance measurement framework called the Australasian LG Performance Excellence Program. Available to all Australian and New Zealand councils, it systematically unpacks what local government is and then puts it together again with more meaning.

The wide-reaching benchmarking program was created in collaboration with consultancy PwC to work across borders and foster self-driven improvement. And despite the disruptive climate of recent times, we have been working hard to ensure this resource is being and will continue to be productively used for the benefit of all councils.

If more people genuinely understood what makes good local government performance, we would see most of the political noise level reduce – and a real focus come onto the business of excellence in the two main areas of workforce capacity and service delivery.

My view is that councils are effectively an amalgam of a range of disparate services. That means their operations are complex, especially in a highly regulated environment. If we take care to deeply understand these things, we start to understand local government effectiveness.

Challenging results to work on together

I am steadfastly positive about the state of local government. That’s because I see the overwhelming, collective and tenacious will of the majority of senior leaders wanting to achieve exceptional results. Every day in my role as CEO of Local Government Professionals NSW, our members ask us to bring important issues to the fore.

They want to have an open discussion and improve the sector, no matter how challenging, or how political.

Imagine what else we could do together. These councils recognise that despite boundaries, different local government legislative frameworks and even cultural differences, it’s more important to acknowledge similarities and use this to drive the best performance and therefore outcomes for their own communities.

Through this substantive work with the sector, we now know that many councils face significant issues that cannot be fixed quickly. Within a decade many councils will not be able to replace their workforce and may face a 15-20 percent capacity shortfall.

We now have 141 participating councils – around half of NSW and NZ councils, and many from WA, SA and Queensland sharing their council performance data. They have been benchmarked and are collaborating and driving real change in their councils and regions.

They range from the smallest councils right up to mega council Auckland City (population 1.5 million). Our aim in sharing the collective benchmarking results is to examine the broader issues and potential options and solutions. We will look at case studies and at how this data can inform government policy. It has already prompted much discussion and debate.

Through this column I aim to shine some light on the performance of local government. This will come not only the findings of our unique data, but also the work we have done throughout the reform period and beyond.

Annalisa Haskell is CEO of Local Government Professionals Australia, NSW, the leading association representing all professionals in NSW local government. It is part of a national federation of associations. Annalisa is developer of the Australasian LG Performance Excellence Program, developed in collaboration with PwC.

Comment below to have your say on this story.

If you have a news story or tip-off, get in touch at editorial@governmentnews.com.au.  

Sign up to the Government News newsletter

Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required