Community Engagement Reform a Necessary Local Government Reform

Community Engagement Reform, the 4th area of the Governments Local Government Reform proposals, is necessary.

 

Many in the community consider community engagement is something that Councils are poor at. The Government’s local government reform package must therefore include a look into community engagement.

Much of the problem with community engagement is that council’s hands are tied. Tied in regulation that is not applicable to the world today. Regulation that is a one size fits all approach.

Replacing therefore the current prescriptive community engagement requirements in the Local Government Act with a more flexible ‘Community Engagement Charter’ is a no-brainer.  The consultation requirements under which we currently have to act are way too complex and prescriptive. The whole industry therefore looks forward I believe to a complete overhaul.

An overhaul in keeping with my previous utterances about our own ability to communicate with our community. An overhaul that allows individual councils the flexibility to engage with “their” community. Furthermore, an overhaul that recognises there should NOT be a one size fits all approach.

The issue of public notices also requires attention. The Act requires publication in a local newspaper. This is hardly a recipe for good communication today.

The Government has recognised that the current “informal gathering” legislation is causing distress and limiting elected members. It is true, under the existing legislation, that elected members worry that having legitimate conversations on the business of the council, will land them in trouble. We therefore need to find a way to promote transparency in councils without criminalising legitimate conversations.

The proposals however appear to be placing (yet again) an administrative burden on councils that will add cost to local government, not reduce cost. There will need to be some deep and meaningful discussion about how to balance the two, without creating another cost impediment to Councils. An impediment that will ultimately be transferred to you.

Local Government Reform Area 3 – a positive change in the main

The State Government’s Local Government Reform Area 3, one of 4 reform areas, focuses on efficient and transparent representation.

 

This Reform Area attempts to provide a range of proposals aimed at improving the local government elections in South Australia.

 

During the earlier call for reform ideas, the most popular idea received was to introduce electronic—online—voting for councils.

 

Disturbingly there is no proposal to consider this. The government is telling us that technical difficulties are too great at this time. I would however appreciate at least new legislation recognising the potential future role for electronic voting.

 

As with my blog posts on the other reform areas I agree with many (if not most) of the recommendations.

 

I agree with their proposal NOT to move to compulsory voting. Their reasoning is that enforcing compulsory voting in a postal voting system is difficult and resource intensive. My reasoning is compulsory voting, I believe, will see the potential intrusion of the political parties into local government. This is indeed the case where compulsory voting exists in the eastern states.

I also agree with the proposal to avoid local government elections being in the same calendar year as state government elections. Being in the same year can invite voter fatigue. Of note is the next election year will be 2022. As the federal government is due for election also in that year (as part of their 3 year cycle) By the time our elections come round, there will surely be voter fatigue.

I support the re-introduce the automatic enrolment of property franchise holders. Currently they have to painstakingly re-apply before each election.

Being independent, I absolutely agree with candidates having to confirm, at the time of announcing their candidacy, any affiliation with political parties. You deserve to know about any such political affiliation before you vote, not after. The same for donations received and whether or not a candidate lives in the Ward.

Candidates should, in today’s world, be provided with a choice of receiving a paper copy (as now) of the electoral role for their ward, or a digital copy of the roll. We are the only level of government where an electronic copy is denied.

The rest of the initiatives are pretty much administrative in nature. They will simply improve things without you necessarily seeing the benefit.

All in all, the recommendations in the State Government Local Government Reform Area 3, will bring about a better more transparent local government.

Lower Costs and Enhanced Financial Accountability for Local Government.

Lower costs and enhanced financial accountability for Local Government. A noble 2nd area of reform in the Government’s program of Local Government Reform.

 

The Government went to the people in March of last year with a promise to lower the cost of running local governments. A noble ambition.

Eleven recommendations have been put to you and I for comment. Many I don’t have a problem with.

Indeed, Unley already voluntarily does what is proposed in the first four recommendations. That includes having more independent members on the committee than elected members. It includes those independent members having due qualifications to sit on the committee. Furthermore, our committee is already charged as an audit and “risk” committee.

As a metropolitan Council we don’t have much trouble with doing this. I can imagine however regional councils may have trouble due to a lack of suitably qualified candidates.

 

What I do have a problem with is requiring the Auditor General to oversight of all Council Audits. 

 

This I see as one of those measures I noted in my first blog post of this series that will add to the cost of local government. Significantly.

The Auditor General has got powers of investigation over the industry already. Powers he can use at his discretion. Similarly, like the powers he used recently to oversee the workings of the Brownhill Creek Project.

To have oversight over all 68 councils each year is an overkill. The AG would have to resource this work. He would likely direct the work to the same organisations/people conducting the audits on behalf of councils now.

As the AG would be responsible for the work, he would have to oversee the work. This would require increased resourcing. This adds another layer of administration, which must add to the cost of reporting and therefore to the industry.

Doubts about the adequacy of some current or past auditing contracts would be better served by the Government setting up a register of accredited auditors. Councils can seek their auditor from this list. Restricting auditors to working more than a set number of successive years with a given council would also be worth considering.

Productivity Council Publishes Draft Report Ahead of Time.

The Productivity Council has released the draft report I recently blogged about. They have done this ahead of time to maximise the Local Government sector’s opportunity for an informed response.

 

As the Productivity Council’s report will feed into the Government’s Local Government reform agenda, I interrupt my series on the reforms to include this.

After being briefed by the PC chair yesterday I am gratified at their efforts to truly understand the industry. They have consulted well. Their draft report, on the surface, recognises the constraints under which the local government industry operates. Their report certainly does not present as the Government, I suspect, may have expected.

They recognised that just under 50% of our activities are mandated. Activities over which we have no control. It recognised the cost shifting State Governments of both persuasions thrust upon local government. The chair preferred to call this cost sharing. Nonetheless it was recognised.

It also recognised the need for local government to develop in the non-mandatory areas in keeping with the needs of their community.

Finally, it recognises that wages growth in the sector has escalated beyond CPI. This is an important conversation in that wages represent 1/3rd of our costs.

In other words, the report demonstrates that the Local Government sector, by running a tape measure over it relative to each other, as being an efficient sector. This diagnosis albeit with a caveat that there is significant room for improvement.

 

The report, which can be read here, makes three distinct recommendations. They are as follows:

 

  1. Lift the capacity of local councils to identify and address opportunities to reduce their cost base and improve their operations.
  1. Facilitating bench marking by clusters of councils through an appropriate mix of incentives for councils to participate and expectations that they will report information publicly in a format consistent with the framework.
  1. Further lower council costs by addressing aspects of the relationship between the South Australian Government and local government.

The Commission is looking for a response from us (councils and the community) on the draft report. Before preparing the final report to be presented to the minister, they are asking us 19 specific questions they are still seeking answers to.

We have until the end of next month (October) to do this in order they meet the deadlines imposed on them by the Government.

New probe into council spending to push reforms

New probe into council spending to push reforms is the headline today in the IN Daily on line news. This spells the next chapter in the push for Local Government Reform.

 

Having failed in its attempt to cap council rates, the Government is now promoting they intend  to establish new probe into council spending to push reforms by the state’s Productivity Commission. This is good news in my opinion.

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall and Transport Minister Stephen Knoll (AAP Image/Kelly Barnes)

I welcome this move as a construction move. I expect the local government industry will too. Certainly, the article indicates the LGA president (Sam Telfer) is in support. We will no doubt discuss this among ourselves in the next short period of time.

Investigating what is a myriad of differences in what the various councils do and how the fund them is the right approach to reform. This will definitely be of benefit to the local government industry.

Each council should eagerly participate in this exercise. They should also be eager to see the results. Such an exercise would help in our efforts to gauge our performance against other councils.

We often try to compare ourselves to other councils. We do so as a guide to how well we may or may not be performing. That has always proved most difficult. It is because of the differences between us in how we go about things. Likewise in how we fund them. Furthermore, it is how we record them.

I would expect your elected representatives will be better informed in decision making. Our administration likewise will have more confidence with what they may put before the elected members. The big benefit will be yours however.  You can then better value what your Council is doing for you compared to what others are doing for their communities.

Done right and down well however will take some significant resources. I expect it will take some serious time too.