Trees line a straight road leading off into the distance

Future Proofing Councils: organisational change in Australian local government

By Susan Law

There is always that dichotomous cliché: change is the only constant in the world.  As local authorities, Councils are not only part of the world, but, in the key role in providing civic leadership to our communities, Councils find themselves having to flex and adapt themselves to meet the expectations of their communities and to help them make sense of the changing world.

The drivers to change are many. Some are extrinsic to the Council; others are initiated by the organisation itself.

External Drivers

Demographics

Graph showing a declining predicted budget, eclipsed by increasing adult social care and children services expenditureThe Graph of Doom – a graph prepared by the Council the London Borough of Barnet. The chilling lesson from this graph is that by 2021/22, the Council will need to spend all of its funding and revenue on just providing services for its vulnerable adults and children. Without changes to the manner in which services would be delivered and policy settings, there would be no funding for other services such as waste, community development etc.

While Councils in Australia are not charged with the provision of social services for adults and children, the demographic trends for Australia are similar if not sharper.  This impacts upon state governments and reinforces the drive in NSW, South Australia, and Tasmania for local government sector reform. The ability of state governments to significantly contribute to the funding of local government for services is becoming increasingly constrained. In fact, local government is experiencing the reverse: services being devolved from state to local government without the corresponding level of funding to deliver them.

Similarly, Councils’ rate bases and their ability to raise revenue from ratepayers is coming under increasing pressure. In NSW, rate capping by the State Government is in place and is being debated in South Australia and Tasmania.

Customer and community expectations

At the other end of the demographic spectrum are the expectations of our communities and customers. Most services and the way they are delivered were designed for the post WWII and baby boomer generation – now we have Generation X, Y, and Z, whose expectations are quite different from those of their parents and grandparents. Traditional sectors such as the taxi and hotel industries are having to cope with surviving with disruptive technologies and organisations such as Uber and Airbnb. Nevertheless, these disrupters are setting the expectations for access, service, and response. The disruption in many service sectors is causing major re-thinking of service delivery models, even traditionally conservative ones such as banks. Local government cannot step aside from the change. 

State Government and internal programs of reform

In addition to the UK, in NSW and South Australia, pressure has been placed upon local authorities to not just consider change on an individual basis, but also to participate in a broader program of sector reform.

Image of Alan Rushbrook

Council Transition Support Expert Interview: Alan Rushbrook, local government finance expert

LKS Quaero is offering a complete package of Council Transition Support for amalgamating NSW Councils. This is part of a series of interviews in which our transition expert team members pass on some key nuggets of advice.

Alan Rushbrook is a local government financial specialist whose experience goes well beyond financial management as he has sandwiched his financial career with managing community service activities. He brings a strong reputation for leading teams and providing robust policy advice. His varied experience in local government, both in senior management roles and as a consultant, in large city Councils and small rural Councils, has provided him with many skills, particularly in the financial management, corporate support, and community services functional areas. Alan is a Fellow of the Australian Society of CPAs, qualified in Myers Briggs administration and Juran quality management. Here is his advice for CFOs and other leaders of amalgamating Councils.

What opportunities are there for finance teams during an amalgamation?

Amalgamations are the time when finance staff need to shine. It is when our skill sets can provide enormous value to the new organisation.

Why do I say this? It is a time of change. Often inertia and conventional wisdom dominate Council decision making, making change hard: not just difficult to do, but hard to get started. So when there is a changing environment, your first impediment to change is overcome!

It will be a time of immense work, but be sure to take time to think strategically for your Council, your team, and yourself. It can be too easy to get caught up in the focus of moving systems, people, registers, etc, etc. and not raising your vision beyond your desktop. Take time to think beyond the next meeting.

Be clear about what you want to see change, whether it be the strategic financial direction of Council, the structure of your department, or a particular process. The favourite for me in the past has been to challenge some of those areas of waste or inefficiency that have just been accepted or have been protected. Even if many of the players haven’t changed, sometimes they may not be so passionate or committed about their programs or activities as they once were. When things don’t have the usual balance, it might be a good time to get some things changed.

Also, there will be some untied dollars around. Have a think about what you or your team could use that you haven’t been able to get funding for in the past. Set systems up for the future as best you can.

Council Transition Support Expert Interview: Geoff Haberfeld, finance, governance, and risk specialist

LKS Quaero is offering a complete package of Council Transition Support for amalgamating NSW Councils. This is part of a series of interviews in which our transition expert team members pass on some key nuggets of advice.

Geoff Haberfeld consults in finance, governance, and risk. A former senior executive in Commonwealth and State Government business enterprises and policy agencies, he has a good understanding of the “workings of government,” including budget processes, funding arrangements, and regulatory regimes.

Well experienced in organisational reform, Geoff has held senior roles in a variety of organisations during times of significant change. His experience ranges across local, state, and federal government, including water, health, and housing. Geoff is also Deputy Chair of the Cairns Regional Council Audit Committee and Chair of the Douglas Shire Council Audit Committee. Here is his advice for leaders of amalgamating Councils in NSW.

What are the characteristics of a successful amalgamation process?

A successful amalgamation will be characterised by a united and sustainable organisation sharing common goals and aspirations, achieved by a well thought out transition process and strong stakeholder engagement.

Early attention should be given to:

  • Appointing a transition team representing all stakeholders, meeting regularly and supported by a good practice risk based project management framework
  • Commencing a communication program involving all staff regularly, utilising face to face, email, and social media
  • Developing a new organisation structure and communicating it to all staff
  • Developing an ICT Strategy encompassing the IT infrastructure, business and technical applications, and communications applications, including customer interfaces
  • Developing position papers for addressing key factors having an impact upon long term financial sustainability, including a common rating system and common service levels
  • Commencing a financial due diligence review
Image of Nick Tobin

Council Transition Support Expert Interview: Nick Tobin, former General Manager and strategy/financial sustainability expert

LKS Quaero is offering a complete package of Council Transition Support for amalgamating NSW Councils. This is part of a series of interviews in which our transition expert team members pass on some key nuggets of advice.

Nick Tobin is an innovative and experienced General Manager with a depth of experience in senior positions in local government, excelling across property development, efficient service delivery, financial management, and stakeholder management. Nick led the delivery of one of the largest pieces of public infrastructure delivered and funded by local government: The Concourse, Chatswood’s entertainment and performing arts precinct. The unique funding model and project plan developed for the site by Nick and his team has become a leading model across local government. During Nick’s period as General Manager at Willoughby City Council, the City was awarded the A R Bluett Memorial Award, the highest accolade available to local government. Here is his advice for General Managers and CFOs of amalgamating Councils in NSW.

What are the key management challenges in upcoming amalgamations in NSW?

The biggest challenge will be putting aside previous beliefs as many GMs were clearly against amalgamations. There have been some perceived winners and losers in the process and bridges need to be built to create an inclusive environment. Interim GMs will also need to work very closely with the Administrators and the implementation committees of former elected members.

Another challenge will be keeping the public informed on what is and isn’t changing. Getting the public onside will be essential if the amalgamation is to be successful. Elections will be held in September 2017, so major changes will be difficult to implement prior to then, but there is an opportunity to develop a new Community Strategic Plan, which will be the blueprint for the new Council. It is unlikely that major asset sales and acquisitions will occur before the new Council is appointed, but an asset strategy should be developed, to be adopted by the new Council and integrated into the Long Term Financial Plan.