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.

Elected Member Conflict of Interest an Area in Need of Reform.

Elected member conflict of interest is the last of the areas of concern in the Government’s 1st Reform Area. I agree. It is absolutely an area in need of reform.

The ‘elected member conflict of interest’ model in the Local Government Act is unnecessarily complicated and confusing. As a result, many councillors do not participate in debates, when their expertise would be valuable.

I have seen this play out in the current council. I myself have felt compromised on occasion, unsure of whether I have a conflict or not. Worse yet, there is potential for a member to use conflict of interest as a way of avoiding voting on a contentious issue.

The rules around elected member conflict of interest are complex. They need simplifying. They need to recognise that elected members invariably will be members of other community organisations. Be that sporting clubs, service clubs, churches, neighbourhood watch or other like community based organisations.

Being a member of any such club should not in itself constitute a conflict. Often the aims of the organisation and council are the same. A conflict should therefore centre around the original intention of the act. That is that the elected member should not personally gain.

The current provisions also cloud the area of where you or your family may live as a potential conflict of interest. A member should be able to vote on matters relevant to their street or suburb. If they can’t then their immediate neighbours do not have  a voice in Council. This played out to the consternation of the community in the last Council as they dealt with the DPA in Unley Central.

If these rules are not simplified we run the very real risk of community minded people not running in future for Council. Given this, you have to ask the question. Who do we want running for Council.

The very same people I would have thought.

Stronger Council Member Capacity and Better Conduct

Stronger Council Member capacity and better Conduct is the first reform area in the Government’s Local Government Reform Agenda. This is indeed the area of highest priority.

 

Accordingly, stronger Council Member capacity and better conduct is the first area I also am giving thought to. As I noted in my blog post of 21 August I intend to convey my thoughts in each of the areas.

I agree with doing this. The Local Government industry agrees with doing this. Apart maybe from a handful of recalcitrant elected members, that is. Members who don’t see themselves as part of the elected body team struggle with this. Those who seemingly must be seen as fighting the establishment.

The media agrees with this and, with their prodding, so do you. Poor behaviour or conduct makes for the Medias view of good press. The press push any notion of poor behaviour on the part of elected members. With this being invariably the sole source of information you have on local government you obviously will likely share the same view.

What you might read in the press however is not the problem that needs to be addressed. It is separating integrity and behavioural issues, and the mechanisms that currently exist to deal with both.

The current rules are a vast improvement on the previous rules. They create confusion however. Members can be compelled by these rules to report perceived code of conduct breaches in fear of being in breach themselves.

The proposal being put forward aims to separate matters of integrity and behavioural matters. This is a must. Matters of integrity must always have robust procedures for handling, including penalties. On the other hand, behavioural matters can and should be dealt with differently.

 

The Government is proposing 20 recommendations.

 

Generally speaking I support all of these. Some with a degree of caution.

Please look to my next two blog posts as I look more closely at the difference between matters of integrity and behavioural matters. Look also for my thoughts on increasing the powers of the Mayor and (in a separate blog post) my thoughts on conflict of interest.

Local Government Reform Recommendations are a mixed bag.

Local Government Reform Recommendations are a mixed bag but fail to address the Government’s core objective. That is my in initial observation as I endeavour to review each of their 72 recommendations.

 

As I revealed in my last blog post the Government has made 72 recommendations to inform a new Local Government Act. 72 recommendations over 4 core reform areas. Some good, some not so good. I will respond to these in later blog posts.

Up front I have to say the recommendations fail the pub test though of achieving their core objective. They will not help to reduce the cost of local government providing the services they provide you. Indeed there is every potential they will increase the cost of providing those services.

They fail to look at what Local Government could look like in the future. They focus instead on fixing perceived legislative failings. A RACE TO THE BOTTOM AS IT WHERE. The reforms appear to have us spending MORE on governance than on roads and rubbish.

The recommendations, by and large all centre around governance, good governance. As a public utility spending public money (your money) it is important that good governance is a given. It is only natural that when reviewing procedures that the focus quickly turns to solving what is not working.

Not surprisingly, this leads to increasing governance measures. So naturally, any such exercise will potentially lead not to reduced costs but to increased costs. If that happens then the obvious question that must be asked is, am I getting good value for the extra $ I will see leave my pockets. Will it be worth it?

Not only are the reform recommendations are a mixed bag, they place potentially greater legislative restrictions on how we provide for our community. So, before you respond to the Governments invitation to contribute to the conversation, may I suggest you truly consider each recommendation and what it really means. If in doubt, look to my future posts on the reform recommendations.

Serious Local Government Reform

Serious Local Government Reform is about to commence with an inquiry into local government costs and efficiency.

The State Government has asked the South Australian Productivity Commission to investigate local government. They have asked them to examine the trends in council costs and the efficiency and the drivers behind these trends. In order to get it right, they will consult local government and other key stakeholders.

This is all good news for me as I indicated in my blog back on May 24.

The LGA is seeking feedback from member councils to inform a sector-wide submission. Therefore, they will be hosting a workshop session with the Productivity Commission.

On your behalf, I intend to attend this session. As a result, I expect to get a good understanding of the approach they will be taking.

The inquiry will examine trends in the costs of local government and the drivers of these costs. It will also develop and analyse measures of efficiency resulting from the trends they have discovered. Likewise, it will identify ways that might be used by councils to measure and improve performance.

The exercise will result in the Commission providing advice and recommendations on options for improving efficiency in local government operations.

Council Rates AnalysisAs the table shows, your rates have increased well ahead of the CPI. They have also risen in excess of the LGPI (Local Government Price Index).

The Commission will identify the drivers of the increase in your rates.

This may include changes to the scope of services provided by councils. It will also identify changes in the environment within which councils operate. Likewise it will reveal ratepayer preferences for greater levels of service.

A final report is expected to be ready for submitting to the Parliament by November this year. I look forward to the results of this serious approach to Serious Local Government Reform.

Political Ties Part Only of Wider Suite of Council Reforms.

Council reforms are back on the media Agenda. But we need a wider suite of Council reforms.

The Local Government reforms being advocated however are too limited. They are restricted to one issue only, that being Candidates declaring prior to the elections any political ties. We therefore need a wider suite of council reforms

Cr Don Palmer. Providing Local Leadership and Working For You

Such a narrow focus as this does not serve us well. Neither the reputation of local government, nor the opportunity for positive change.

I whole heartedly support such disclosures prior to running for election rather than after the dust has settled. If we want improved Local Government into the future however, we need to be discussing a much wider suite of Council reforms. Reform focused on elected members and more broadly focused industry reforms.

Yes. Reform of Local Government Reform is needed. It will come.

The Industry knows it and is advocating for it. The Government signalled prior to its election that it sees reform in the local government as essential.

The State Opposition prior to Christmas promoted its own reform agenda. And the Independents in the State Parliament are also for change.

Venturing down this road in 2019 (and we should) should see a focus on a wider suite of council reforms however. Wider than has been placed before the public thus far.

At the very least, the following bullet point list needs to included in any reform package.

  1. Election reform should include disclosure of where a candidate lives and prior to the election.
  2. Election reform should also allow all candidates to have digital copies of the electoral roll for their ward.
  3. Likewise, election reform should allow also for digital voting.
  4. Strengthening of the Elected Member Code of Conduct to give it some teeth and legal muscle.
  5. Develop guidelines, procedures and templates to allow the voluntary implementation of the Local Government (Boundary Adjustment) Amendment Act 2017.
  6. Improving performance of Councils and creating best practice by using a more understandable means of bench marking.
  7. Investigating other revenue opportunities to reduce the reliance on rates.
  8. Likewise, to reduce the reliance on rates, improving mandatory revenue options to achieve cost recovery-user pays.
  9. Streamlining the industrial relations processes into an industry standard.
  10. Clean up the auditing processes of Local Government.

I look forward to providing local leadership in the coming months to encouraging this wider suite of council reforms.