Article

Local leadership in a changing world

From Australia to New Zealand, the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts have devastated many communities and ramped up the pressure on organisations servicing them. If councils were already trying to do more with less, the upheavals of the past 12 months have only intensified this challenge.

Business unusual: the impact of COVID-19

Reduced venue licensing fees, rate caps and rate freezes have eaten away at revenue streams, while a loss of income from facilities like carparks, airports, and community and sporting clubs has reduced council budgets even further. Unlike other organisations, local governments aren’t eligible for JobKeeper and other relief initiatives, putting them in a difficult position as they try to maintain service continuity and support local businesses, community groups and residents in challenging times.

As well as seeing to community needs, local governments are undergoing seismic transformations of their own. “More operational and strategic changes have been crammed into the past six months than council has seen in the past six years,” says Stephen Yarwood, Urban Futurist and former Lord Mayor of Adelaide.

When social distancing regulations first took effect, many councils struggled to maintain business continuity and establish effective remote working setups. At the same time, they have had to think long and hard about how to allocate their increasingly scarce resources more efficiently.

In some organisations, this is leading to retrenchments and redundancies. In others, the focus is on getting more out of existing employees. According to Clare Sullivan, CEO of Local Government Professionals Australia, up to 25 per cent of council workers have seen their roles change substantially as a result of COVID-19.

To contend with these pressures and try to forge a path forward, many local government leaders are stepping back, reassessing their operating models and devising strategies to make their organisations efficient, adaptable and resilient enough to withstand the challenges that are sure to come.

What ratepayers want: the push for citizen centricity

COVID-19 may have pushed local governments to move many operations and services online, but the public appetite for this shift was already strong.

“In a digitised world, people want to be interacting with council at any time of the day, including after hours,” says Sarelle Sinclair, Senior Business Services Officer at Tablelands Regional Council in Far North Queensland.

Today’s citizens want to be able to resolve their own issues online, without speaking to multiple parties or navigating confusing websites. When they do need to get in touch with council, they expect a fast response on a channel of their choice – they won’t stand for lining up at an enquiries desk or joining a call queue to solve simple problems.

“While smart cities are still a pipe dream, smart citizens are here today,” says Stephen Yarwood. “And the way they live and work is transforming our cities, states and nations.”

But as community expectations rise, the budgets to meet them aren’t keeping pace. As inner-city areas become more populous and urban sprawl sees formerly rural or industrial areas rezoned for residential purposes, population pressures are stretching the capabilities of councils with budgets designed for another era. Rural and regional councils, too, are facing falling revenue from declining populations, making it hard to refresh outdated infrastructure and maintain consistent, high-quality services.

As a result, many councils are so busy seeing to lengthy backlogs of renewals that taking proactive steps towards a citizen-centric future feels like a task for another day. But as residents, ratepayers and council employees become increasingly connected, that day is approaching at high velocity.

Publish date

19 Feb 2021

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