Need to ditch ‘damaging obsessions’ about local government

Australia needs to rethink its “damaging obsession” with the board of directors model of local government and instead promote the role of councillors as community connectors, brokers and leaders, a public policy expert says.

Professor Graham Sansom

Roads, rates and rubbish have been replaced by relevance, respect and resources as priorities for the council of the future, a conference on local government heard.

“Our … damaging obsession in local government is the notion that we can somehow separate quite neatly the role of managers and councillors using the board of directors model,” Graham Sansom, adjunct professor with the UTS Institute for Public Policy and Governance told the Future of Local Government Summit in Melbourne on Thursday.

“If local government is going to be more valued, respected and community-led we need to rethink some of our ideas about elected representation in local government.

“(The board of directors model) is the prevailing model written down in legislation around the country and in my view it needs to be revisited to think about how we deal with complex political challenges and how councillors can play a bigger role in building the strategic capacity of councils.”

Professor Sansom, who who led the Independent Local Government Review Panel’s (ILGRP) inquiry into NSW local government reform in 2013, said state government policies placed huge expectations on local government, including the need for good democratic governance, supporting the community, managing places and delivering infrastructure and services in a “terribly efficient” manner.

“How are councillors going to live up to all that?” he said. “Do they deal with that in their own right as elected representatives with their own views or do they have to wait for the officers to come forward with a report that they can vote yes or no on?”

Mayors: first among equals or civic leaders?

He also suggested there is a disparity between the view, held by some councillors – of mayors as “first among equals”, and the more widely held community view of the mayor as a civic leader responsible for formulating a vision and making sure council fulfils its role.

Queensland mayors follow this model, but the notion has previously been resisted in Victoria and to a lesser extent in NSW.

It’s also the case in the UK, Professor Sandsom says, where London has embraced the idea of a single elected mayor as the capital’s primary figurehead.

“It’s that aspect of the London mayor’s role which has captured the imagination of people in London – they have someone who’s clearly got the job of leading the way’,” he said.

Less hubris, more humility

Another critical skill for councils to meet the challenges of the future is regional cooperation and the ability to project local interests on a larger scale.

This means an ability to collaborate with community, political and managerial leaders to pool skills and resources to get the job done, Professor Sansom says.

Local councils need to see themselves as key player in place-based governance, but not the only player, he told the conference.

“Its about more humility and a bit less hubris – it’s about a collaborative approach to determining the priorities of the future and how to realise them.

“Are community engagement and regional cooperation a professional task that councillors best leave to senior managers, or is that something where they need to be playing a hands-on role in forging and maintaining links with other key players?”

Learning to love audits

Professor Sansom also said councils should embrace auditing as a form of independent scrutiny that ultimately helps them do things better.

“Performance audits done across the nation are actually churning out a whole bunch of really good information and ideas about the issues confronting local government and how to deal with those issues,” he said.

“They are providing a treasure trove of very useful insights and information for councillors to use in their role of making sure their organisation is on track.

“The auditor is your friend.”

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4 thoughts on “Need to ditch ‘damaging obsessions’ about local government

  1. Professor, councillors can’t be “community connectors” [which is their first responsibility] when they are representing 30,000 ratepayers. Smaller councils would help.
    The dictator model of mayor as we have in Qld contrasts unfavourably with the system where the mayor is elected annually by the councillors from among their number by secret ballot, and where the mayor has no executive powers, does not employ and control the CEO. No corruption in that system.
    Agree that the auditor is a great source of good financial advice, but I don’t see that happening in Qld.

  2. Interesting article but as we at TRRA see it the council has allowed itself to be aloof of their constituents and have become arrogant and self-serving, unfortunately.

    This has encouraged the entry of Developer notions without people of experience in the local Government field creating Companies that have no transparency and accountability with the Residents and Ratepayers and producing large stuff ups and corruption.
    A full independent ICAC needed to be conducted to clean up the mess.

  3. Very interesting article and I agree totally about the less hubris more humility comment. It has been my experience in regional NSW that the boys’ clubs that have run some councils for many decades and expect absolute obedience from the staff and the community need to change the way they do things!! There is also a need to educate the community about how to hold their Council accountable.

  4. Agree with Sansom that the role of Councillors as community connectors, brokers and leaders is far broader than that of Board members. They also have a community education role – broadening community views to acknowledge wider perspectives.

    But the role of Mayor as first among equals is also essential. The qualities Sansom identifies for a Mayor are those required by all Councillors: being civic leaders responsible for formulating a vision and making sure council fulfills its role. Each Cr has this role and they need to work as an effective team to this end.
    The vision for Council is not the Mayor’s but a collective effort determined by Council as a whole, after inputs from the community, Council officers, and individual Councillors. Moreover, a Mayor given Civic engagements, ceremonial and chairing roles, and the extent of Council responsibilities, necessitates all Councillors’ input to ensure the Council organisation fulfills its role. The Mayor is the first among equals in holding the Council organisation to account in meeting the Council plan, implementing Council endorsed policies and community engagement and aspirations. Expecting the Mayor to be the sole civic leader rather than sharing this role collegiately, means a less effective Council.

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