The Birth of the Regional Councillor
After the Queensland State Government’s decision on the 10th August 2007 to accept the independent local government reform commissions recommendation to reduce the number of Councils from 157 to 73, (of which only 26 will be divided local government areas) which also reduces the number of local councillors from 1250 to 73 mayors and 480 councillors, there is a new playing field for local government in Queensland. This new playing field is called Regional Council and like it or not communities will now have to deliver and work with a new type of councillor, the Regional Councillor!
Growth and Sustainable Communities
The reported motivation for this reform agenda is based on the state governments concern that the existing local government structure was unable to:
- Deal with the challenges of growth
- Deliver triple bottom line outcomes for communities
Whether or not this is true will never be known, but it is an expression of a growing concern that old structures have not the capacity to lead the community to a better and sustainable future. It is important not just to manage growth but, leverage it to secure local sustainability.
The concern is that even in a growth context are we creating better places for people and business in our local communities. One thing is for certain, Local Government amalgamation alone is not the solution to addressing the complex issues facing communities seeking a vibrant future.
The Benefits of Growth are Uneven
In the Queensland context, the structural change has been driven by growth and the practical need to efficiently co-ordinated infrastructure to support expanding economic activity. Growth is not a bad problem to have. But growth does not evenly benefit the community on a social, economic and physical level and that is the hidden challenge facing local government in a growth context …just collecting rubbish and mowing sporting fields isn’t enough to create a sustainable community.
At the national and state levels ?scale? makes it is easier to hide behind the ‘better good’ argument and spread the pain for nation building. This position becomes untenable at the local level. At the local level there needs to be street smart decision making to help all levels of the community (the voters) participate in the benefits of growth.
Will Bigger Provide Better Decision Making?
New council boundaries provide a structural catalyst for change. But is this enough? Just to promote scale as the efficiency for infrastructure, resource and environmental management seems to be a simplistic foundation for an effective local government of the 21st Century. There is a danger that this approach will just imbed the existing weaknesses in decision making at an even larger scale than before.
It?s been the quality of decisions rather than the scale of the council structure that hinders the sustainability of local communities. The sustainable growth of the future requires triple bottom line awareness to all local decisions including major infrastructure. This is an issue that is critical irrespective of Local Government Reform
The structure needs guidance in the nuance of decision making if it is to avoid the short comings of the abolished councils. There is a real need to develop not only new structures but integrates strategies, policies and procedures to deliver the new sustainability agenda.
The Need for Early Outcomes
State and Federal government need to better partner with councils seeking new ways to meet the challenges of the future. Local government driven innovation needs State and Federal government encouragement and support if structural reform is to secure stronger local government. Outcomes are urgently needed. A network of regional best practice projects need to be identified, promoted and fast tracked to build capacities within local government and confidence in the community. The Local Government four year election cycle makes this even more critical to get it right now!
The reformed structures now need innovative support to empower local government with quality decision making. It is a partnership between community, elected representatives and professional staff that provides the best championing of local issues. All these processes require a culture shift for all levels of government to deliver sustainable local communities.
There is a social and economic imperative to champion local issues. Current social and economic trends clearly show that ‘local’ is the foundation for sustainable growth. But delivering sustainable local growth in a networked world requires organisational leadership that most hard-nosed private corporations struggle with, let alone traditional service providers dealing with rates, roads and rubbish.
The current local government reform agenda focuses on initiatives that protect local lifestyle, the inherent natural environment of Queensland culture and the booming economy that fortuitously is thrust upon us. These initiatives seek efficiencies in bureaucratic processes based on consistency and transparency. An argument that is just as powerful as the current debate regarding inefficiencies between state and federal services such as health, education and policing.
Make a Difference
If you take a breath and stand back a moment, you will notice whilst these initiatives are important, they will deliver little in the short term to the day to day lives of local voters. This is the rub for the new regional councillors! How do you sell the benefits of efficiently delivering services as something extraordinary when locals expect that as an inherent part of the tax burden of local government?
There is a space in any dialogue where you choose to either passively submit to the seductive logic or reignite your deeper passion for something that matters.
Maybe, outcomes matter more than process.
Just maybe, in a world of information and choice overload we need to focus on things that matter locally.
…And just maybe, that is the right thing to do in local government!
For a framework to develop more effective action plans see A Place-based Enterprise Manifesto for Local Government