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Local government: Do locals get what they pay for?

By Robert Gibbons - posted Tuesday, 6 September 2011


The strategic “needs” of NSW and Australian urban and regional communities have been addressed in previous pieces by John Mant, Ed Blakely, this author and others in On  Line Opinion. Reviews of NSW’s planning and local government legislative frameworks are underway, with a potential lead to the nation in modernising local governance.  The challenges to do so are real:

  • The ageing of society has infrastructure, housing and taxation implications as explored in successive Treasurers’ Intergenerational Reports (especially shrinking of the income tax base and increase in health and housing costs)
  • Budget crises at Federal and State/Territory levels are expected to intensify and there are “gaps” such as in generalised road-access tolls and recovery of portion of the “betterment” due to projects
  • The depletion of Infrastructure Australia’s kitty and various crises in public and private finance prospects in Sydney, Brisbane and elsewhere
  • Premier O’Farrell has promised to engage communities in metropolitan housing and infrastructure planning (as is happening in Melbourne) amid a highly fractured municipal and state framework, and has a “localism” policy which might come to have UK-style implications for devolution from Whitehall – further reducing central influence
  • Conflict abounds in local councils, workloads have increased along with the complexity and confusion of roles, and development approval processes have been identified by ICAC and surveys as the highest corruption risk activity in the State.

The Australian governmental framework was determined a century and a tenth ago, with many entrenched interests still fighting campaigns of little relevance to community challenges.  

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The Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government (ACELG) reported an international roundtable to discuss metropolitan governance (December 2009) which included this:

Management of major metropolitan areas is a classic ‘wicked problem’ – the variables are many and complex, change is rapid and often unpredictable, patterns of cause and effect are poorly understood, apparent solutions may lead to further problems, and so on.  Our capacity to manage effectively is limited by lack of understanding, lack of resources relative to the scale and nature of the issues to be addressed, and lack of adequate governmental and intergovernmental frameworks to make the best use of the resources that are available. Moreover, metropolitan management is increasingly a subset of more far-reaching issues – climate change, poverty and so on. In particular, we need to be clear on why and how city performance needs to improve in the national interest.

The majority of councillors and managers want to see an end to the cycle of blow-ups between politicians and managers, misguided and wasteful aspirational projects, and a lack of pre-planning for emerging economic, climate, cultural and like conditions.  There have been many managers leaving dysfunctional council cultures to the distress of councillors and communities.  Many councils and councillors have initiated action, seeking solutions but without satisfaction, against one or more of their peers under “code of conduct” type provisions. 

The Local Government Act 1993 is being reviewed after almost 20 years. Reform has to hit such areas and put in place the arrangements that will satisfy community needs for at least another 20 years. ACELG’s recent “Consolidating – A Fresh Perspective” in two volumes is a major reference point.

The Victorian style of government, from time to time, has tended to give a national lead in innovative practices and sensible evidence-based analysis. “Evidence-based” has been defined elsewhere. That it has been absent is seen in many of NSW’s and others’ “mistakes” such as failed PPPs, inaction (including “non-decision-making”) and wastes of money.  The converse is often called “back of the envelope” and “muddling through”.

The starting point is to summarise the issues arising from the many controversies’ inquiries and accounts. This has been done in this writer’s “New Solutions to Old Problems, Strong Responses to New Challenges” referred to recently, with remedial elements making sense individually but also as a whole.

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By working back from evidence and thinking in new ways, it is possible to avoid amalgamations and enhance local “identity”. New solutions and strong responses indeed, as opposed to “the usuals” from sections of the local government community-of-interest.

The famous “Reinventing Government” by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler quotedTom Lewcock, city manager of Sunnyvale in California:

One of the keys in government is to take things that aren't politically acceptable in the normal context and change the context - to create a different way for the decision makers to look at them … the very same issue often turns out to be politically acceptable. [Elected officials] don't have to be people who say, "I know this is more important than that but we're going to spend our time on that, because local constituents are on my back. 

The review of legislation that affects and underpins community engagement and empowerment after so many years of contention is a window requiring the best possible approach. Local government can be more effective, relevant and progressive in a challenged and sometimes fearful society that pays for ‘government’ and often feels it gets poor value.  

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About the Author

Robert Gibbons started urban studies at Sydney University in 1971 and has done major studies of Sydney, Chicago, world cities' performance indicators, regional infrastructure financing, and urban history. He has published major pieces on the failure of trams in Sydney, on the "improvement generation" in Sydney, and has two books in readiness for publication, Thank God for the Plague, Sydney 1900 to 1912 and Sydney's Stumbles. He has been Exec Director Planning in NSW DOT, General Manager of Newcastle City, director of AIUS NSW and advisor to several premiers and senior ministers.

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