Modernising the Local Government Workplace

By Public Sector Network | April 6, 2022

Creating a Contemporary Workplace

Sorana Dinmore

General Manager,
Corporate Services,
City of Marion (SA)

Tony Brun

Chief Executive Officer,
City of Cockburn (WA)

Michelle Webster

General Manager,
Customer and Commercial Services,
Central Highlands Regional Council (QLD)

Five Key Take-Aways From this Session

Local councils have always been the closest tier of government to the people, and in many ways, they also suffered the most during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet for three councils in particular, spread right across the country, the pandemic was also an opportunity to recalibrate and reassess. Whilst some already had the technology that allowed most of their staff to work remotely, for others it was the catalyst they needed to set up new ways of working. It also presented the opportunity to develop new pathways for the future. All of this and more came through in PSN’s ‘Modernising the Local Government Workplace’ seminar, and the following are five of the key take-outs from that event, though of course many of them are inter-connected and inter-related:

Overcoming Challenges – The COVID Opportunity

For councils all over the country, COVID-19 was just another challenge that they needed to overcome. Most are concerned with ensuring their communities survive economically and sustainably, so even a global pandemic won’t stand in their way. In fact, Michelle Webster, the General Manager of Customer and Commercial Services at Central Highlands Regional Council in Queensland, about a three-hour drive inland from Rockhampton, says that “COVID was a positive opportunity for our region.” Their council is considered “medium sized” in terms of staff and resources, with “about 500 employees,” though they are large in terms of geographical size, “about 90% the size of Tasmania.” They cover “13 different communities,” and as such have “seven Council offices.”

Before COVID hit, there were some serious challenges that the council faced, from political and community expectations to the impacts of school closures and housing. Being regional, they also had trouble “to recruit and retain an experienced and skilled workforce, particularly in the professional roles.” This is in part because the region is very much a mining area that pays exorbitant salaries and occupies most of the housing. “We can’t pay the rates that the mining companies pay.” So, every other industry – including local government – suffers. “It’s difficult at times for us to compete on a number of levels.” As a result, they were looking for a catalyst and “COVID presented that opportunity to bring about change.”

“I think COVID has really provided a really good opportunity for us as an organisation to make changes, rather than being stuck in our old ways.”

Michelle Webster, General Manager, Customer and Commercial Services,
Central Highlands Regional Council (QLD)

For a council like the City of Cockburn in Western Australia, COVID also presented opportunities for change. Tony Brun, the Chief Executive Officer, says that they have a population approaching “120,000 people” in the “southwest metropolitan area of Perth,” though they are growing quickly and expect to have 150,000 people within the next 15 years. They have about 1,000 people who work for them (550 FTE) and “$1.7 billion in assets.” This makes them “reasonably sized.” Even though they are in WA, “where we’ve had a light touch in the context of COVID,” nonetheless, the spectre of a global pandemic has meant they had to adjust and adapt like everyone else because “economically, everything’s changed.”

Simplifying the Vision – Empowering the Workforce

At the City of Cockburn in WA, the looming pandemic and the arrival of a new CEO was the impetus they needed to not just change things, but to simplify things. Tony Brun says their ultimate purpose is to “support our communities to thrive.” This hasn’t changed, but now the focus is on ensuring “everyone is clear on the purpose, that everyone knows their objectives and how to measure success.” Previously it was a little disjointed because “we had quite a complex strategy with upwards of 180 objectives. It was just far too complicated.” It got that way because every elected member added their own take.

“Now we’ve simplified our core objectives. We brought them down to five, with three core deliverable strategies under each, so from 180 down to 15. This has really enabled us to simplify what we’re trying to do and created areas of priority. This has been a big lesson for us as an organisation in streamlining.”

Tony Brun, Chief Executive Officer, City of Cockburn (WA)

Traditionally in the public sector the way to do things was through “task-based management,” where each person had to complete the tasks on their PD. “We wanted to flip that.” Now it’s about “purpose-led management,” where everyone has a single purpose “which streamlines things and the way people operate,” both from an individual and organisational perspective.

For Sorana Dinmore, the General Manager of Corporate Services at the City of Marion in South Australia, in the southwestern suburbs of Adelaide, it’s not only about being purpose-led, but also about being “data driven.” They are a council with “over 93,000 residents” and about “a billion dollars’ worth of infrastructure.” They have a workforce of about “450 staff all up, with the majority on the aging side.” Data is important not because every decision needs to be based on data, but so that “you have the data available at the point where that decision needs to be made.” This allows decision-making “at the lowest level possible so that it can be as agile and as effective as it can be.” This enables and empowers people.

Using Technology to Assist in the Delivery of Services

At the City of Marion in SA, technology has been the focus of their transformation journey. Sorana Dinmore says that COVID changed their perspective. It meant looking at the digital set up and embarking on a “digital transformation journey.” In November 2019, just before COVID, they began looking at their “design thinking approach.” They wanted to “increase our social license and become more community-centric.” To do this, they began implementing their new digital program in March 2020, as the pandemic began, but this actually gave them “the added impetus” to be more creative in how they implemented it, given that people started to work from home more due to lockdowns. “It allowed us to try things that perhaps otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to.” This included an attempt to become a “more contemporary workplace” by seeing the “community value in all of our actions,” and by “increasing our organisational agility.” As more automation comes into the sector, “we need to be ready for the changing nature of our jobs.” On top of that, for many years, particularly those who work in finance have been very creative because “they have found innovative workarounds” for the complex systems and processes. As part of the digital journey, “the new finance and asset management system is due to go live in July 2022.”

“We all look at the customer, but sometimes we forget about the internal customer. So what we’re trying to do is achieve a single view of the customer, whether that customer is internal or external.”

Sorana Dinmore, General Manager, Corporate Services, City of Marion (SA)

This meant increasing the digital literacy of everyone in the business. For the 80 outdoor staff who “didn’t have emails and had never used technology before,” it was a different starting base than for others. The program started with payroll because everyone needs to get paid. The journey also included moving from “managing a billion dollars’ worth of assets in Excel spreadsheets” to the introduction of Salesforce, Sharepoint, Office 365 and the cloud. Some of that went live either before COVID, or during the first wave, so it has already proven to be useful. Much of it was also done in partnership with universities as well as “the cities of Charles Sturt and Port Adelaide, in order to set a benchmark between the three of us and to better collaborate.” The next task is to “remove desk phones to have even greater flexibility. That is still an ongoing process. We have also changed from desktops to laptops.”

At the Central Highlands Regional Council, Michelle Webster says that they are generally “early adopters of technology,” largely because of their size, and they moved most of their operations to the cloud just before COVID hit, which meant that “working from home was very easy for a number of staff.” Most staff have laptops and mobile devices so they “can really work anywhere, anytime.” In general, technology has been a lifesaver for the region, and in terms of the Council, it means that anyone can “beam into Council or executive meetings.”

Different Ways of Working – New Working Arrangements

Tony Brun says that at the City of Cockburn, the way they manage has changed. There are now 8 senior leaders and though they get their hands dirty when required, their real role is to “guide, inspire, coach, mentor and assist, as well as to empower others through trust and the right resources and delegations so that their teams actually deliver the work. The critical role of the leadership group is to empower and support their teams in delivering the best and possible outcomes.” As a result, though having staff in the office is still necessary, “we now allow opportunities for staff to work wherever they want.” This is about “transforming our culture, creating opportunities for greater collaboration,” and developing a “more flexible workplace.” According to a staff survey, “87% wanted more flexible working arrangements.” So far about have of those have been granted, though rather than time spent in the office, “we rely on their skills, their qualifications and their experience to deliver the best results.” On top of that, in order to ensure consistency, since “we are now in a very dynamic, changing environment partly because of COVID, we are always in a state of review,” ensuring that all the systems are in place and are working as they should. Part of that means focusing on tasks and the “creation of multidisciplinary teams from across the organisation.” This in part “breaks down the organisational hierarchy and barriers,” but also allows them to “make a decision and just go ahead and do it.” It is all about “working towards your purpose.”

Michelle Webster says that at Central Highlands Regional Council, “almost 30% of our office-based workforce have requested flexible working arrangements post COVID,” so they too are arranging that. However, this got them thinking about new working arrangements in general. Just prior to COVID they flagged a “$200,000 refit of the office,” though this was put on hold when the pandemic hit. Now they are questioning whether it is necessary. Employees want to feel safe wherever they are and in general, “many have been more productive at home.” As long as managers can still “have some line of sight to their staff, it’s absolutely okay for us to have that new way of working.” It may not apply to everyone, like outdoor staff, but new arrangements “like working eight days and then having four days off” is also something that is being considered and is attractive to the staff “to maintain productivity.” On top of that, why does someone like an “accounting executive actually need to sit in an office in Emerald? They can be in Brisbane or anywhere within the country as long as they’ve got the technology and can come up here once a month or once every six weeks.” This is not only a cost saving given the housing situation and cost of living for them and their family, but it is “a different way of thinking for the organisation.”

Sorana Dinmore from the City of Marion agrees and says that to implement a new way of thinking, they recently launched a “leadership development program with the University of South Australia for our executives.” It is largely about “change management” and showing them that new arrangements are possible and necessary. After all, flexible working arrangements were very unpopular at the City of Marion prior to the pandemic, and whilst many found remote work “really challenging,” others embraced it. Luckily for the Council, “everyone got laptops just before COVID,” which greatly helped, but it was still “a big cultural shift, a big mental shift, and continues to be.”

The Importance of having a Diversity of People

For all councils, diversity and inclusivity are important. Sorana Dinmore says that in terms of staff, “we have a good ratio of females and males.” The problem they face is that “we don’t have enough newer graduates or recent graduates because it is very difficult to attract younger people into our cohort.” This is despite the fact that they are based in a metro centre. Michelle Webster says this is even more so the case at Central Highlands Regional Council, where “it can be difficult for our organisation to attract any people at all to the region.” However, given the new ways of working and the technology at their disposal, they are trying to become more diverse and inclusive in other ways.

At the City of Cockburn, Tony Brun says that for them, diversity and inclusion are “really about ensuring that people are comfortable.” In terms of their staff profile, “we’ve got a very young cohort, with many under 35 which is well below the state and national median age for council employees.” This is great, but in a sense, some more experienced staff would also be good. In the meantime, of the eight senior leaders, “we have a 50-50 gender split. This was an important part of the journey that I wanted to get quite quickly because I saw that having an organisation that’s led by a demographic that represents the community, which is 50-50, was really important, and it wasn’t created by any artificial means.”

Once there was an even gender split, at least at a leadership level, the focus turned to “transforming the way people view our workplace and making sure that diversity, equity and inclusion as well as a sense of belonging and creating a strong sense of place, were critical. It was about transforming the culture within the organisation.” In fact, “there are so many people with a diverse range of backgrounds, genders, races, histories and experiences, and this can bring so much to an organisation.”