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For the Greater Good

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Council leadership and the staff they lead are not what they were 20 years ago. Are we aware of this or are we still complaining?

Over the last ten years, I have learnt a lot about councils all over our country – Queensland, NSW, Victoria and Tasmania. Both myself and the rest of the team at Dattner Group have worked with leaders within councils (Waratah Wynyard, Baw Baw, Hills Shire, Circular Head, Broken Hill, Maroondah City, Sutherland Shire), I have spoken as an Australia Day Ambassador for over 20 regional communities, all arranged, supported and managed by councils and I have worked with enlightened and visionary executives to support specific local initiatives, i.e. Glen Eira engaging local business women to collaborate.

I think there is a strange willingness on the part of communities all over Australia to be critical of council activities and at the same time, to consider positive feedback unnecessary. I am not sure why we do this. I understand in Australia that Federal Government is fair game – they are (generally) a long way away from us, live in rarefied conditions (Canberra is nothing if not rarefied) and live by rules that largely baffle the broader voter body. We can, in three year cycles, vote, which puts the power of ultimate judgement in our hands, but I am not sure that we do much (on average) in between.

I think this is also relatively true of State government, although it gets closer to our daily lives. I think we all feel some level of ownership over what our State politicians do, the decisions they make, the funding they provide to State wide initiatives. But even so, not many of us will watch a sitting parliament, or perhaps even follow conclusively a debate on an issue that was show stopping during the election.

But local government? That’s really in our backyard, the elected Councillors are people we do or can know and EVERY decision or action has an impact on our local community. There is a reason to watch and connect, but do we really, or only when our self-interest is or isn’t being served?

There are some 28 services that our councils typically provide, from town planning, to pest and weed control, dog and cat management to halls, cemeteries, parks management, rubbish collection to arts management and local festivals/events.

In fact, all that council employees do is think about and support us, the people of their community: they design, build, facilitate, measure, inform, make safe, inspire, create, secure, and clean for us. They bury our dead and make sure there’s a reliable place for the new born to learn to swim, they design and manage the parks we take our dogs for a walk in, the libraries we use and, whether we like the way they do it or not, manage local shopping spaces, road side curbs, laws on dog poop and pick up times for our rubbish.

Yes, we pay for the service, but as I have come to understand what happens behind the scenes, I am now convinced we don’t pay an outrageous amount for what we get; it’s just that we don’t really fully understand the privilege of local government in Australia.

I won’t speak for elected members (that’s a generous calling), but I will say the paid staff of council, including its CEOs and executives, are clever, informed, hardworking, dedicated to community and scanning the world for what is best practice. They know each other, collaborate, talk and share across many geographies.

I might have said once upon a time that councils weren’t particularly well run, but I think that is less and less true and it is in the community’s interest to acknowledge the continuing transformation that is happening in this sector.

Most council CEOs I’ve worked with try to ensure executive teams are aligned, difficult people are given the right support to grow, cultures (how we do things around here) are measured and actions taken to address the right levers for change. All the senior leadership groups I’ve worked with are smart, willing and open (generally) to personal and team growth and none of them take where they are for granted. They listen carefully to community expectations, respond strategically and review operations constantly.

Some councils struggle – with rates collected and so cash flow, with particular local challenges (from minor – residential building permits – to major – dealing with significant fire risk), or operations, maintenance and alignment to strategy. Some businesses also struggle with this. But unlike business, councils take their accountability to community seriously and know if things aren’t working internally, then the council can’t satisfy our (the community’s) expectations; so at least they try to affect change. Lots of businesses I know simply don’t care.

I wonder, when did you last ring your council and say thanks for something they’ve done well? Some 93%[i] of voters want governments to play a role, rather than the private sector, in providing services to the community. We actually know, in our hearts, that it’s more efficient, motivation is relatively clear, and community’s needs are at the centre of organisational choices.

So, this is a call to action, an acknowledgement of the privilege of local government.

We might think council isn’t responsive to our expectations/demands/phone calls, but I doubt there is any other organisational context (not for profit, government, entrepreneurial or corporate) that is as attuned to us, the community, as our local council.

200,000 fellow Australians work in this sector. Worth us considering when we next ring up to complain about the dog poop.


Author, Fabian Dattner, Founding Partner Dattner Group, Co Founder Homeward Bound


[i] The full report of Why Local Government Matters was launched in June 2015. See the ACELG website for the Profile of the Local Government Workforce report and a presentation of Why Local Government Matters findings.