Delivering on the promises of the digital era

Two years since the NSW Government announced the amalgamation of 42 councils into 19, the decision continues to be hotly debated and analysed, Ben Cowling writes.

Ben Cowling

While the amalgamations were carried out with the intention of achieving greater efficiency and effectiveness through scale, a report released by NSW Audit in May points out that no council anticipates savings within the first three years of joining with others.

The progress of these newly formed councils has also been hindered by multiple IT systems and databases that need to be integrated, and none have yet determined future service offerings or service levels.

This should not be too surprising. Amalgamation isn’t just controversial – it’s also complicated.

As the report states, council amalgamations not only require a re-drawing of boundaries, but re-establishment of local representation, decisions about alignment of services across the former council areas, and establishment of an amalgamated workforce.

In our “Changing Landscapes” research report with UTS, it was revealed that close to 60 per cent of our Council customers say that merging with other councils affected their progress towards digital transformation.

Yet the demand to do more with less continues. Fortunately, at a time when councils are under pressure to provide enhanced digital services while reducing costs, council co-operation has emerged as an alternative, more cost-effective option for responding to economic pressures such as falling population and reduced council funding.

According to research, partnering with other public sector organisations is already the way forward for 58 per cent of councils pursuing improved digital services. Engaging external consultancies (54 per cent) or other private organisations (49 per cent), such as Civica, are the second and third most popular options.

The benefits of banding together

The benefits of council cooperation are numerous. One of the biggest advantages arises from information sharing. This allows for an enhanced understanding of what is important not just locally, but in the wider region. When councils share ideas, it’s easier to work together towards positive outcomes for citizens.

The sharing of business processes also benefits local councils. When IT and operations are aligned, it allows for common operations and training, allowing councils to get the best out of their IT investments and resulting in a better understanding of new systems. This creates a more efficient workforce and releases staff from administrative duties.

Instead of focusing on day-to-day details, employees can prioritise value-based tasks, combating staff shortages. The result is a more customer-centric and efficient council, doing more of what really matters for their citizens.

When multiple councils are involved in a large-scale project, it is more cost effective to share business capabilities and IT services. This frees up funding to be spent where it is needed – on roads, training, infrastructure and providing services to those in the community.

One size doesn’t fit all

There are different approaches to pursuing council co-operation. We’ve seen our customers use different models successfully.

One option is for councils to share learnings and business processes with no commercial or contractual connections. Another model involves councils choosing to provide specific technical support for another, for example, IT support or payroll services.

Alternatively, councils can form a partnership to find a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, standardising their systems commercially and contractually.

Moving forward together

Many councils are generally eager to pursue cooperation but may be lacking the right support and experience to drive co-operation forward. As citizens increasingly expect modern, digital experiences, council co-operation can provide a cost-efficient alternative for councils looking to enhance the value they provide to their citizens.

A combined approach of partnerships between councils and external agencies will enable councils to achieve the best results for their citizens. Through process optimisation, information and best practice sharing, councils can strengthen employees’ ability to focus on what matters and rise to the challenge of delivering on their promises to citizens in the digital era.

Ben Cowling is Chief Operating Officer (ANZ), Civica

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