The future of local government

A presentation to Marrickville Council management
by Les Robinson, author of Open Your Council

13 February 2002


The next 100 years will be more chaotic than the last 100. Trust me on this.

We live in an era where a terrorist attack on the other side of the world can cause a local child care centre to close it's doors because it can't renew it's insurance.

All transformations are chaotic and this will be century of dramatic transformations. Some of the obvious global ones include:

• shifting lines of power caused by the spreading and deepening of the Age of Information;

• the decline of the Age of Oil and the transformation of the world's energy systems;

• OPEC-driven debt crises and fiscal squeezes (especially on social spending);

• deepening economic exclusion in a global scale leading to repeated wars (more fiscal squeezes at home!) and waves of refugees (I can't guess where this will take us!).

In 1900 my home city - the City of Wollongong - had a Mayor, 3 aldermen, and a staff of three including the 'Chief Clerk and Collector of Fines.' It currently has a staff of 600. I expect that this chaotic century will have equally dramatic impact on our local government. It will survive but in a radically transformed state.

I won't waste my time guessing what exactly the future will be like. No one can know that. But I'll ask some questions that might focus our minds on how to be ready for some of these changes.

This talk has a number of, hopefully intriguing, themes:

1) The job of government is getting more complex

2) The silos are collapsing

3) On the front line you need to improvise

4) Learning to see the information economy

5) Avoiding the loneliness of the long distance control freaks

6) The challenge to de-bureaucratise.

1) The job of government is getting more complex.

I'll tell you the stuff you know:

• more services are being added: environmental monitoring and reporting, environmental education, disability services, economic development and promotion;

• there are higher lifestyle expectations: community safety, environmental health, pollution, noise, street design, road closures and traffic calming;

• there are more legislative responsibilities from State Government e.g. Protection of the Environment Operations Act;

• we are shifting from managing services to managing localities: doing strategic urban planning and struggling with multi-faceted social/environmental/economic problems.

The well-known planner and lawyer, John Mant, suggested 3 futures for local government: under the combined impact of micro-economic reform, enhancement of individual rights, Ecologically Sustainable Development, Information Technology, and the shift to asset management.


1) Continuing the progressive weakening of local government by the substitution of State corporate bodies for Council provider functions (like Waste Boards), the assumption by Planning NSW of development control decisions which have a regional impact, and the expansion of development corporations into areas where there are development pressures or opportunities (e.g. South Sydney Development Corporation).


2) State and local government cooperating to manage places. This approach would require a significant change to the manner in which both levels of government currently operate.


3) Local government taking control of its own destiny and strengthening its own capacity to perform efficiently and effectively, especially by establishing regional organisations to operate many of their service and regulatory functions (e.g Auckland Regional Council, or CanBay).

John was clearly thinking about the technical inefficiency and ineffectiveness of small, geographically fragmented corporations trying to manage big, complex, inherently regional problems.

But I think there are other challenges facing local government in the early 21st century, and I'll mention a few:

2) The silos are collapsing

"The railway and the telegraph wrote the genetic code of the industrial organisation: the personal computer and internet are re-writing it."

How do you manage in a highly information-competent society, where junior staff and active citizens can be empowered with more knowledge and professional expertise that your senior council professionals?

There are at least 4 aspects to this challenge:

• The pressure to modernise workplaces.

You're probably bored by now with by visionary management consultants advocating the 'boundaryless' office, peopled by empowered, flexible, creative, interdisciplinary teams, motivated by people-centred, values-based managers, employing holistic, global perspectives and so on.

But there is a serious point to this: your staff (especially the motivated, younger, professional ones) have out-grown the heirarchical 'Dilbert' office. They are used to swimming freely in a limitless ocean of ideas and innovations. They intellectual horizons don't end at the municipal boundary - and they expect to be able to apply ideas and lessons from many other disciplines and jurisdictions. Corporate fitness in a difficult century means you have little choice but to find ways to harness this energy and creativity without crushing it.

So I ask: can much longer can a council continue to operate as a series of traditional, mono-disciplinary, risk-averse heirarchies?

The answer is probably that you have to start listening to those visionary management gurus.

• Your citizens are way ahead of you

The same thing applies in your relationships with active citizens. Citizens have always had depths of local and historical knowledge that managers ignored to their detriment.

Now citizens too are swimming freely through in a fabulous ocean of knowledge. A group of motivated citizens can now know much more about a professional discipline that your most disciplined professionals. Their boundaries are global. They know what's happened in Seattle, Chattanooga, Christchuch and Bromley-by-Bow. They are hungry for new solutions to local problems. And they have the skills to lobby and destabilise a council if they are unhappy. They can block almost any idea they don't like. And right now groups of angry citizens are blocking almost everything.

So I ask: how long before we get sick of gridlock and invite our citizen activists into genuine partnerships in designing and running programs?

Fortunately there are lots of ways to do this, which I'll come to.

• Solving information inequality

Local government is already at the coal face of dealing with unequal access to information. This responsibility will only increase.

3) On the front line you need to improvise

Welcome to the front line. Globalisation has made everywhere the front line of a new war driven by ruthless economic exclusion. There's nothing radical about this kind of statement. Here's a succinct description from a recent dry-as-dust management text book I found. It was written before September 11.

"If the aim of international competition is to win, only a few can be winners. A real danger is that the losers are excluded and abandoned to their situation. The winners come together and increasingly integrate with one another. Where such processes occur within societies they may lead to increased poverty, unemployment, alienation and crime. But the consequences are even more serious when the processes of exclusion and alienation involves countries and whole regions of the world…

"Delinking is the process through which some countries and regions are gradually losing their connections with the most economically developed and growing countries and regions of the world. Rather than participating in the processes of increasing interconnections and integration that are constructing the new 'global world', they are moving in the opposite direction. De-linking concerns almost all countries of Africa, most parts of Latin America and Asia (except south east Asia) as well as parts of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe."

There is no sign that the policies, national and international, that have driven this exclusion are likely to moderate in coming decades. The United States' one-eyed response to September 11 in a case in point. We have a long way to go before the lessons are learned.

Economic exclusion is not just a global problem, it happens in every Australian city and town. The failure to attend to the local 'political economy of hope' has led to increasingly intense and intractable pockets of anger and alienation throughout the suburbs and bush.

In a world and city of deepening social rifts, local government will inevitably be at the front line - if only because large, inflexible state and federal bureaucracies are rarely capable of the flexible, collaborative, resource-intensive local solutions that will be required.

But is any kind of government capable of reliably solving endemic social or environmental problems? The track record is depressing. There is an emerging recognition that only local, committed, pragmatic 'social entrepreneurs' are likely to be able to deliver the intensive, nuanced local programs that can make a difference.

Independent community initiatives like Claymore Community Housing, Families First in Campbelltown , and OzGreen have succeeded where government could only fail. The best role for government may be to clear away the obstacles, introduce partners, and to support respectfully from a distance.

So I ask: when will we realise that responding to black-spots (of poverty, or environmental damage) means forgetting about control, tossing out the rules, and pitching in to support local community solutions?

The consequences of not acting with such 'social due diligence' can be ruinous: a few bullet holes in an Bankstown police station shook councillors and managers out of their complacency, but it also wrecked the public reputation of the city and deepened the lines of racial conflict, making economic development and recovery so much harder. How much better if the council and agencies had already been working to empower local ethnic associations to solve the problem of their lost young people?

4) Learning to see the information economy

It does a city good to get it's share of the information economy. But the information economy does not consist of big factories and businesses, so it can be hard to spot. I reckon that 10-20% of the households in my suburb, Thirroul, are actually small networked businesses, consultancies and independent contractors (like tradesmen) drawn to the area by its lifestyle attractions. This fact is invisible to a non-resident - and probably invisible to council managers as well. (So how can they do competent economic planning or service provision, I wonder - I guess they can't.)

Attracting foot-loose, globalised, high-income residents is likely to be a growing aspect of local economic development. It won't be easy - they expect clean, safe, attractive places, and high quality services, and they insist on being listened to.

So this means shifting paradigms and making difficult choices.

My question is: Should our economic development strategies continue to focus on seducing big businesses, industries and developments - often visually and environmentally offensive - into a particular area, or should we focus on the lifestyle attractions so desired by this growing class. I doubt you can have both.

5) Avoiding the loneliness of the long distance control freaks

But possibly the biggest threat to local government is itself.

Lacking competition, there has been little incentive for council managers to either innovate core processes or take day-to-day risks. This means that local governments are kind of like Dodo's - old fashioned, slow-moving creatures, once perfectly adapted to their closed environment, but hopelessly maladapted to a new, open, more dangerous, world.

As Gary Sturgess noted - "There are few near-death experiences in the public sector to focus the mind and bring senior executives back to the fundamental questions: What right do we have to exist as an organisation? Where do we add value to society?"

And yet these questions are at the heart of innovation.

Perhaps local government's relative inflexibility and conservatism is the fundamental cause of it's most fatal flaw - the rupture of it's relationship with its citizens.

And retreating into the seemingly safe role of remote, insulated service corporation is not a long term solution to this failure. I know hasn't worked in Wollongong City, where there is now open warfare with the newer, educated, 'globalised' residents.

Power comes from sound relationships with allies. So who are your allies?

States government are hostile and unaccountable (they have ruthlessly 'reformed' local government in Victoria, and to a lesser extent in Tasmania and South Australia).

And other councils are often competitors for resources.

In an unfriendly and dangerous world, councils need to ask themselves - "when the chips are down, who are our friends and supporters?"

So I'd like to ask: How long can you survive in a dangerous world when your most important relationship - with your citizens - is a quagmire of mutual fear and distrust?

Only your citizens (who are also voters and networkers) have the power to prevent a State Government 'reforming' you. Only your citizens have the power (through loyalty and favourable customer feedback) to help you compete with private service providers. Only your citizens (through their cooperation) can make new plans, programs and reforms successful.

This relationship is in bad shape. But it's not too late.

The first step in rebuilding a healthy relationship with your community is to respect the extraordinary depth of knowledge (especially local knowledge), of professional skills, and of local commitment in a contemporary community, and invite this knowledge into planning processes.

But a healthy relationship cannot be dependent. The only government/citizen relationship that will work nowadays is an equal one involving genuine devolution and sharing of decision-making. This means renovating that utterly neglected aspect of local government - democracy. It's a subject that is hardly ever discussed - but we need to start.

So my next question is: How long can managers and councillors avoid the responsibility to renovate democracy as the most important way of shock-proofing their government in a perilous century.

Fortunately there are a host of successful models to draw on. These new democratic initiatives take a great variety of forms — all designed to create a ‘space’ for informed deliberation by citizens on matters dear to them.

They include:

• Citizen panels (e.g Brisbane City Council's);

• Community-based wellbeing ‘indicator’ projects and environmental audits;

• Direct democracy processes like citizen referenda (for instance, multi-choice referenda on local budget priorities);

• Citizen juries or investigation panels;

• ‘Teledemocracy’, that is, online discussions, internet conferences, email voting;

• Study circles: facilitated small group sessions involving learning and problem-solving around community issues;

• Consensus conferences and Future Search Conferences - these are facilitated large scale community deliberation events; and

• Elected Community Boards, often with substantial powers and budgets.

Planning NSW has been promoting many of these approaches in its Plan First program.

You can get a basic overview of some of these approaches in my little book Open Your Council, available from Pluto Press.

6) The challenge to de-bureaucratise

If follows that managers of the future will need to be capable of quick, flexible, creative, humane, resourceful, local action.

So my last question is: how much longer can local management remain exclusively the responsibility of university-trained technocrats sitting in offices, juggling numbers, desperately maintaining the illusion of controlling the uncontrollable?

The land, air and water are not being repaired. Too many people are slipping through social service nets. Planning conflicts are splitting communities. Inflexible, impersonal, technocratic, professional planning solutions are already failing. Complex social and environmental dilemmas need subtle, creative solutions where every situation is treated as unique.

I think that local government will inevitably be forced to significantly de-bureaucratise local management. Gary Sturgess thinks there are only three promising approaches: competition, contracting-out and community.

I expect that contracting functions to jointly-owned corporations, to private organisations, and to community associations (see some examples in Appendix) is the way of the future - it let's you have flexible, self-managed teams, avoids many of the negatives of bureaucracy, promotes innovation, and can allows you to respect and support local community-based initiatives.


Conclusion: the new currency - trust.

Government in the 20th century has been - beginning to end - a quest for efficiency and professionalism. It is clear, however that the problems are already too big for people in offices to solve alone and our model of government as a purely professional enterprise is unsustainable.

It is time to return to a view of government as a fundamentally democratic enterprise, inherently about people, leadership and community participation. That means investing time and energy, and it means genuinely sharing decision-making.

I think this will happen. There is very little choice.


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APPENDIX: Contracting communities - a few examples

• Shoalhaven City Council contracted 2 community groups in Ulladulla to do traffic counts and Streamwatch monitoring (this was about 4-5 yrs ago).

• Moreland City Council contracted residents in some streets to reduce traffic flow (David Engwicht was the consultant). The deal was "If you reduce local traffic by 10-20% we will return the same use of the streetscape to you for street closure, gardens, annual street party, or traffic calming."

• Goulburn Valley, Vic (See Living with the Land, ACF) DCN Resources contracted with a number of community groups to supply info on vegetation, animal counts, frog counts.

• South Sydney Council contracts Zetland Community Action Group to provide info and deliver the Green Square News.

• Portland, USA's District Coalition Boards are contracted by the city to provide a wide range of ‘citizen participation services’.