LKS Quaero UK Director Aidan Rave recently visited Australia and met with our Australian team. Here are his reflections on the differences and similarities between the UK and Australian local government contexts – and on the value of a global team when it comes to public service reform.
A seven day round trip from the UK to Australia can have a strange effect on the mind. The combination of jet lag, shifting from summer to winter and around 48 hours stuck in a metal tube has an effect on the most seasoned traveller. Making the trip in late June of this year, in the midst of the political upheaval and chaotic post-Brexit vote atmosphere, added a further dimension to the sense of surrealism.
Of course, attending the annual LKS Quaero hui (a Maori term meaning gathering or assembly) was exciting – an opportunity to meet in person colleagues who had previously existed on the end of a phone or as a slightly fuzzy image on Skype. Okay, the opportunity to sample some of McLaren Vale’s finest was probably a factor, too, but a professional should always be prepared to suffer for the cause!
In many ways, the conversation and debate at the hui confirmed a long-held belief that while the structure and culture of local government in the UK and Australia might differ, there are many challenges and opportunities in common and there is much each can learn from the other’s approach. The political spice on the Australian side was enhanced by the fact that day one of the hui coincided with the general election and all the intrigue, upsets, and twists that inevitably ensue (and there were several). Similarly, giving an update from the UK was inevitably going to be dominated by the fall-out from Brexit, the subsequent resignation of the Prime Minister, and impending implosion of the opposition Labour Party. In truth, it all felt just a little bit embarrassing!
While the “big politics” were certainly never far from the group’s collective thoughts, the focus of discussions remained on issues core to the business on both sides of the equator; namely public service reform, restructuring, amalgamation, culture, and leadership.
The impact of the GFC had a more immediate effect on the UK economy and subsequent public spending plans than was the case in Australia. Consequently, shifts towards structural and political reform of councils in the UK, driven in large part by a seismic reduction of around 35% in real terms spending power over the last five years, has meant that the rate of change in the UK has been determined.
Interestingly, as NSW councils embark on their journey of reform, there is some useful UK insight (not to mention a number of mistakes made and hard lessons learned), within the global LKS Quaero knowledge pool that should prove valuable. In a similar vein, there is a considerable amount of Australian work on systems thinking and leadership, which will be critically important to UK councils as they attempt the next stage of implementation.