The pitfalls of life in remote Australia
For those of us who live in cities or large metropolitan centres – which is the vast majority of Australians – we often take for granted the services and opportunities that are afforded to us. But for those in the remotest parts of the country, the lack of those services and opportunities are what drive them every day. This is particularly the case in the Central Desert Regional Council in the Northern Territory. Diane Hood, the Chief Executive Officer, says that the area of the council is a little over 282,000km2, which is “bigger than the entirety of the state of Victoria but we have a population of only about four and a half thousand. We have a very thinly spread out and dispersed population.” Due of the size of the area, which starts “just above Alice Springs and runs west to the WA border and east to the Queensland border,” the communities have “very few services. They generally have bitumen roads but no curbs, no gas and no water infrastructure.” It is also an environment where “automation doesn’t work. We’ve only recently managed to put in small cell towers into three of our smaller communities, but prior to that, those communities had absolutely no internet, no WiFi and essentially no communications at all.” Most of the rest of the communities still have no communications.
It was clear that there was need to improve the lives of the residents of the area, and to bring them up to modern times, but until 2017 that was not a priority of the council. Things changed in 2017 because of the arrival of Diane Hood as CEO, but also because “there were a lot of issues that were immediately obvious for all to see.” One of those issues, which reverberated throughout the whole community, was that there were KPIs and plans, but “just no measurements, very slow progress and often no outcomes.” Within the office of the council, there were some good people, but also some people “who took no responsibility and there was even some rorting, some procurement breaches and fraudulent behaviour.” Much of this was known but “completely ignored.” There was also a lot of bureaucracy, many governance and policy documents and “pages of actions, but nobody ever checked them and they weren’t outcomes-based anyway.” In many ways, “the problems were just so big so that nothing got done.” It was clear that things needed to change.
Starting the change with the basics
Given how overwhelmed most staff felt and the low base many of them were coming from, the only way they would accept any change would be if it were “a bit more bite-sized.” And in many ways that meant that they had to understand “why they were here.” So that meant that the change started with a re-evaluation of “our vision, mission and values.” This was then followed up by “a lot of discussion and communication to develop a new regional plan that really looked at goals, and we made it results and outcomes-based.” There was also a focus on leadership because many of the managers “had given up a little bit” so there was a need to “reinvigorate them, skill them up and give them more capacity.”
Since measuring outcomes or goals had never been previously implemented, it was difficult to create a baseline. Essentially there had always been two very distinct groups of employees: “an Indigenous workforce in our communities, and qualified professionals mainly in headquarters who were predominantly non-Indigenous.” Many of the Indigenous community workers had always been functionally illiterate and didn’t compare themselves to their non-Indigenous colleagues. But when “we looked at job equity and a levelling across the different types of roles, it actually resulted in almost every Indigenous person getting a pay rise.” However, it will still be a long time before there is real parity, though that is partly related to the fact that “we use satellite communications, which means it’s way too expensive to run cloud at the moment, or some of the other technologies that are available in the cities.” This means that most of the Indigenous workers still use “paper and verbal processes,” so promoting them to management positions is a complex and delicate affair, but the next step is to “build a cadetship for Indigenous people who want to move into management. We’re really pleased to start that soon.”
Outcomes and results
It had been acknowledged by the vast majority of staff and most of the communities that change was necessary, but when it came, there was still “a lot of resistance. I have never seen anything like it before.” Due to the nature and assumed powerlessness of the council, they almost always simply did what they were told by the federal or NT governments. But now for the first time, the council was being assertive and making its own decisions, which was not tolerated by all. “The environment became quite gossipy for a time and that cemented many of the silos.” On top of that, because some of the problematic people were still around, “things did look like they were getting worse initially, and we had a spike in fair work actions.” People generally – especially those “who felt they knew best” – didn’t like being told what to do, particularly those in the communities, so overcoming that “was just time consuming.” Some people left the organisation as a result, but that was not necessarily a bad thing.
For the employees who stayed, their “patience and persistence were rewarded.” In fact, “we introduced some rewards, which were about people demonstrating the behaviours and values that we wanted to see.” It is those values that became really important, and “we did a lot of role plays and had a lot of discussions about the values, and about both positive and negative behaviours.” Everyone was encouraged to demonstrate leadership in their jobs because “leadership is not just for the top of the organisation; every role can be a leader.”
Since some people left and since leadership was a core value, another focus was on recruitment, but “we always have major turnover problems. A lot of people get here and find that they just can’t cope with it.” Nonetheless, housing for staff was upgraded, “which has been a major turnaround.” On top of that, some people couldn’t cope because they didn’t have the skills or any formal training. For the most part, “it is very expensive to get trainers out here or to send people interstate or even up to Darwin. The accommodation and travel alone is prohibitive.” So training was brought in-house, either online where that was possible, or by more skilled staff training the less skilled staff. Professional trainers were engaged along with their information, which was presented to people on the ground in a way that made sense to them. “What we wanted to do was to build the capability of our staff, and to give them the qualifications and the skills that they needed. That was very important to us, as was the need to celebrate our wins.”
The wins were celebrated on social media and in regular newsletters. In fact, the changes that occurred at the council were noticed by others as well, and recently “we won an Employee Choice Award from the Australian Business Awards. We’re very proud of that because it’s actually a testament to our entire staff and the work they’ve done.”
As was always intended, none of the changes were “a big bang. Instead, it’s about getting done what can be done while we’re able to do it, and to keep moving things forward.” Many of the staff now have “a new mind-set, which means we have happier staff.” All the staff also know that their performance will be measured quarterly and they are happy to be part of that process because they know it is about improving the capacity of the whole organisation. The next step is “really about continuous improvement. We now have targets, measurements and actions, and we celebrate our wins, but we need to keep going and learn from our own lessons.”