Broken Hill moves out of isolation to lead collaboration

The remote council is reaching out to like-minded organisations to explore efficiencies and learnings, writes Annalisa Haskell.

James Roncon, the general manager of Broken Hill City Council, says he believes that good ideas don’t have boundaries.

“We are happy to work with any council which can offer us insight and likewise share any information we feel could help them,” he says.

For Broken Hill, the nearest neighbouring council is 100 kilometres away, with the next closest at 280 kilometres. The city runs on South Australian time and is far closer to Adelaide than Sydney.

It has earned the country’s only national heritage listing for a city, standing alongside places like the Australian War Memorial, the Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef. It’s the birthplace of BHP, a town with strong union roots and a destination for international tourists.

The far west city is wonderfully unique, however its remote location has kept it somewhat isolated, out of the fold of NSW local government.

But now that operational isolation is over thanks to the open, collaborative approach being adopted by this visionary city council.

Broken Hill City Council recently sat down to work with Balranald Council, Central Darling Shire Council and Wentworth Shire Council as part of the new Far South West Joint Organisation (JO), which was recently proclaimed by the NSW government.

Formalising collaboration

The structure of the JO, like the new adjacent Far North West JO, needed to take into account the remote region’s unique characteristics and understandably took longer to formulate than some of the other groups.

As general manager, James Roncon has welcomed the encompassing Far South West JO that will share in $20 million provided by the NSW Government in recognition of the challenges faced by the two Far West Councils. That funding will go toward air services, roads, tourism and cultural projects.

The potential of these four councils to work together on their infrastructure and service delivery struggles inspires James but he says it’s the beginning of deeper collaboration to benefit Broken Hill City Council.

Indeed, Broken Hill City Council has utilised the Australasian LG Performance Excellence Program and joined with a unique group of NSW councils to share performance information.

They are categorised as Group 4 councils under the Office of Local Government groupings and range in geographical terrain from Ballina and Port Stephens to Griffith and Bega.

“We are about reaching out to like-minded organisations anywhere to explore similarities and differences and how we can benefit from each other’s successes,” says James.

“In the past, the tyranny of distance has kept us bunkered down, not reaching out to our near or far neighbours, now we are becoming partners through this program.”

Drilling down on service delivery

When Broken Hill City Council compares itself with metropolitan councils, more of the remote difference becomes apparent, particularly in limited income streams. It’s quite likely there are Sydney councils who earn more through their parking fines than Broken Hill does with rates.

After staving off bankruptcy three years ago, the council was left with 30 per cent fewer staff and is battling with how to continue delivering a level of service that keeps everyone happy. It is now running a series of service reviews to work out what is a reasonable level of service within budget and community need. The council is utilising data collected in the Australasian LG Performance Excellence Program to inform that work.

James says it’s an immeasurable benefit for him and his staff to able to look at the comparative numbers other councils have in the age-old council challenge of balancing costs and levels of service.

Being able to reach out directly to other councils about what they have done in the past to achieve good outcomes, and look at comparative information, is empowering, he adds.

“The other councils in our Far South West JO are not yet in the program and we will advocate for them to join us so we have a foundational, comparative evidence base allowing us to better leverage from one another as we look to how we can resource share and save.”

Broken Hill City Council is an ambitious example of collaboration beyond borders that will determine the success of the sector.

The opportunity is there for councils to work together to maximise performance and better meet the demands of state governments and communities.

Annalisa Haskell is CEO of Local Government Professionals, NSW.

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