Skip to main content

Pay attention to your local council – the people who run it, and the councillors that get elected. Their role is far more important than they’re given credit for, and we should all get more involved. Local council needs outstanding leadership; those elected and those paid for. It is one of our most immediate and effective ways to shape the future we all want: a sustainable future that is inclusive, collaborative, legacy minded and contributes to creating a world we all want, not one that we fear.

In Australia, we have three tiers of government: federal, state and local. I and the DG team have worked in all three, though I personally have developed a sweet spot for local government. They are so close to my home and do so much for the community I live in and are, for the large part, invisible and unthanked.

State and Federal elections are highly visible. They get a lot of media coverage and we learn something (if not more than we want) about most of the candidates and their party’s policies. In theory, this helps us make informed choices.

But local councils? What happens there? Do we pay attention to what local councils do (which, incidentally, is a lot), to the people who stand for election or who run the councils? Do we have the same clarity of conviction about the value or relative importance of our vote? I suspect not.

Why Local Government Matters is a major piece of social research on community attitudes to local government undertaken by the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government (ACELG) in 2014/15. The research aims to better understand how and why the activities of local governments, and their roles in society, are valued by communities, and is as relevant now as it was when it was conducted.

The research investigated:

  1. Local government’s role as a ‘place shaper’ and its importance in meeting the needs of citizens that drive their relationship with the areas in which they live
  2. The preferences of communities for how their services are delivered at the local level and the ability of local governments to offer flexible and community specific service delivery
  3. Theories of governance, particularly community beliefs about big versus small government and its role in the market and how that intersects with the private sector
  4. The preferred extent of public participation in government decision making, and preferences for the realisation of public value
  5. Community knowledge of local government, ranked importance of services which can be delivered by local government, and attitudes about amalgamation
  6. The attributes of individuals which are theorised to interact with or influence their attitudes and beliefs about each of the areas above, including demographic factors, levels of community participation, values and political leanings.

There are 537 councils Australia-wide. Of these, around 55% are regional, rural, or remote councils.

For more context, local government employs 194,000 people which is nearly 10% of the total public sector (as at June 2018). They’re a significant force:

  • In 2018-19, local government collected $18.9 billion in rates.
  • Local government rates make up just 3.4% of tax raised by all levels of government and is the only tax levied by local government.
  • Local government’s total annual expenditure is $38.8 billion (2018-19).
  • The sector’s major expenditure items include:
  • Transport (22.4%) and recreation, culture, and religion (16.6%) and environmental protection (14.8%) (2018-19)
  • Local roads add up to around 662,597km in length (2019). This is approximately 75% of the total national road length – enough to circle the earth 16.5 times.
  • The replacement cost of local government non-financial assets including buildings and structures, machinery and equipment and land is $457 billion (2018-19)

Behind the stats, it’s worth acknowledging the people at the centre of these councils:

  • From CEO or General Managers and executives to senior leaders, managers and team leaders, from project management to maintenance, from arts precinct to storm water control – clever, educated, skilled, and experienced people who, on the whole, care greatly about what they do
  • They are subject to workplace laws, and the policy as it affects the day-to-day of our community. They are recruited based on stringent requirements and are, as with many of us, subject to performance reviews and agreed outputs.
  • In many of the councils I work with there is a passion for people; local governments who are doing their work well invest in people, align staff to strategy, develop leadership capability, have cross functional collaborations, are out and about in community listening to and acting for people from all walks of life. When the night is dark and stormy, the power lines down, gutters filling up and flooding occurring, they are out and about doing their best to keep us safe.
  • Like all of us, they’re on a journey of learning and growing.
  • Transport (22.4%) and recreation, culture, and religion (16.6%) and environmental protection (14.8%) (2018-19)
  • Local roads add up to around 662,597km in length (2019). This is approximately 75% of the total national road length – enough to circle the earth 16.5 times.
  • The replacement cost of local government non-financial assets including buildings and structures, machinery and equipment and land is $457 billion (2018-19)

The elected members of council

Councillors are democratically elected by the residents and ratepayers of any given municipality.  Once elected, they are responsible for reviewing matters and debating issues before their council.

Councillors go through public election and then win because of their visible campaigns, their local business or community experience, their passion for protecting a creek or a nature reserve.

For most of Australia, the remuneration for the hard work involved in being a councillor is not commercially competitive, so the roles typically attract either retirees or those who don’t work full time. Councillors, in my experience, are deeply connected to the communities they represent, are generous with their time, and intentional about how they represent the community and act as conduit between the administration and the community.

I’ve seen the influence of good people in this role. I’ve seen what humble, collaborative, thoughtful community leaders bring to councils. I’ve seen the change that experienced business or sector experts bring when they run for council – now adding their significant life’s experience to discussions on and decisions for the community.

The challenge

I have also seen problems, significant ones.

I’ve seen the struggle of age – people in their late 60s through to late 80s who are embedded as Councillors – winning multiple elections because they are known and whom older members of the community vote for as someone they recognise, understand and with whom they share a world view. Yet those same people struggle with technology, modern ways of leading, capacity to learn and adapt, work in teams, be self-reflective or even demonstrate a basic grasp of leadership for the whole community rather than representing a minority.

I’ve seen some terrible public behaviour. I’ve seen power play between elected members, public vitriol that is hurtful, ugly and divisive. I’ve seen accusations that made my hair stand on end, a lack of accountability that is staggering. In fact, I’ve seen some of the worst leadership practices I’ve seen in any context that no one, including mayor, councillors, executive staff or even mediators know how to resolve.

I’ve done my best to help resolve these difficult moments and had no small amount of success. What I’ve learnt is that a great community leader, who compliments the skill, experience, and care of paid staff, has to be able to:

  1. Be kind, caring and committed
  2. Be constructive and thoughtful, representing the whole of a community not a part
  3. Be capable of listening, reflecting and being part of inclusive decision making
  4. Be able to stand for an issue without dividing a community
  5. Be respectful of the whole in public domain
  6. Think on behalf of the whole rather than self
  7. Be aware that their role is a privilege
  8. Be open to learning about leadership and themselves

Then their value, is immense.

I also note that we, the community who elect them, have a crucial role to play:

  • Think about who will help the whole of the community not a part
  • Consider their leadership skills and body of expertise that adds to the whole
  • Check their background and credentials
  • Track for a blend of ages
  • Be aware of our own bias
  • Vote

Ultimately party politics has no place in local government. People should run for council because they want to be part of improving their community, not because they see being elected to council on a party ticket as a steppingstone to bigger things.

There is enough complexity in State and Federal politics. Local Government is so close to home… it should feel safe… trusted.

Local council belongs to all of us and it’s a privilege to have this level of service and care in our communities.

Leave a Reply