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 Susan Law

Norfolk Island Transition Team win at the 2016 Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development Secretary’s Awards

The team responsible for the Norfolk Island Administration’s transition to Norfolk Island Regional Council have won a 2016 Secretary’s Award from the Australian Government’s Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development. LKS Quaero’s Managing Director, Susan Law, was Transition Manager for the reform program.

The team was nominated:

For outstanding leadership in the reform of the Norfolk Island Administration to a Norfolk Island Regional Council that supports the implementation of the Australian Government’s Norfolk Island Reform Agenda.

The Secretary’s Awards honour individual officers and teams who have contributed to the department through leadership, excellence, personal commitment and professionalism.

Congratulations, Susan!

Image of Susan Law

Council Transition Support Expert Interview: Susan Law, former local government CEO and strategy expert

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

Susan Law has led and managed public sector organisations, including local government, health, and housing organisations, in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and the UK. Now an escapee from the Council chamber, she is using her vast experience in complex organisational management, strategic planning, and organisational transformation, particularly during periods of change, to support public sector organisations to position themselves to meet future challenges.

As a former CEO, Susan has completed the amalgamation of three Councils, from forging a new culture to reviewing and reshaping services to enable consistency of delivery and equalisation of costs and revenues. Here is her advice for General Managers of amalgamating Councils in NSW.

From your past experience as a CEO of amalgamating Councils, what are the key challenges in upcoming amalgamations in NSW?

Once the new elected members are established, it is important to align members’ aspirations for the transition with what needs to be done. Sometimes, the Council members are accepting amalgamation only because they have to. There is a need to focus the Council on the future, helping them to understand how their aspirations for the community might be able to be met.

For those elected members who will be in an advisory role during this time, it is important to help them to understand that they have a valuable role in providing support and direction in an organisation that is in transition. Whether they have a part in the new Council or not, they have a critical role to play in ensuring their organisation and community are best represented and that means paying as much attention to the transition issues as they paid to business as usual in the past.

The same applies to the employees. The leadership has to be motivated and inspired, so it is very important to be able to paint a picture of the new Council that is not just two or more bits of old organisations bolted together. Nobody gets out of bed to come to work just to save money, so pictures of working for a successful integrated community have to be painted. It is crucial to communicate that the efficiencies gained are not gained for their own sake, but to enable the Council to build the infrastructure and provide the services that the communities need, now and into the next generation. Councils are in the long term game and it is exciting to be able to play a part at a critical stage.

The last key challenge is running an ambidextrous organisation. That is, the challenge is keeping the business as usual going and sunsetting the old organisation, all while overseeing its refulgence as the new organisation.