Community voice

Sarah ArtistThe UTS Centre for Local Government may be local in name, but it has forged an international reputation. Mark Abernethy talks to the Centre’s Assistant Director, Sarah Artist, about its growth and commercial success over the last 21 years.

Why would a local council need help from a university? It’s a question answered not only by the services offered by the UT S Centre for Local Government (CLG), but the kind of help requested from Australia’s 565 local governments.

“Local governments are a microcosm of the community,” says Assistant Director of the CLG, Sarah Artist. “So any problem you can imagine a business or an organisation having, local governments have them too.”

Those difficulties are as varied and as serious as you’d expect from a form of government that has more than 150,000 employees and administers more than $100 billion worth of public infrastructure. But more importantly, local governments operate under the mantra that they deliver what the community desires, says Artist, making good governance at a local body level a delicate matter.

“Local governments have to be focused on financial sustainability while also supporting the needs of the community,” says Artist. “This is the challenge.” The CLG was formed in 1991 as a research and professional development resource for Australia’s local government community. In those days, says Artist, local councils needed development of management and leadership skills and because many of them were amalgamating and being pressured by state governments to operate more efficiently, they were searching for best practice templates.

A natural evolution

The CLG started as an academic research centre but quickly expanded into offering professional development programs and consultancy services under its own banner. Artist says the growth of the CLG into the largest of its type in Australia has followed the evolution of local governments themselves, from insular delivery arms of state government to democratic organisations expected to reflect the communities they serve.

“Most local councils are mediumsized businesses but they are political organisations and community organisations, too,” says Artist. “So, we offer programs in management best practice, but we also offer some interesting, higher-level leadership courses.”

This means the CLG still produces research papers such as the national review of education and professional development needs of Australia’s local government, or its recent review of excellence frameworks in local government, which included a redesign of a ‘leadership framework’ by CLG, which is being rolled out to local governments.

“We’re still a university,” says Artist. “So we will always retain an academic focus.” But the growing part of the CLG business has been its design and delivery of education and professional development course for the local government sector, the exemplar being its Management Challenge in which local governments from Australia and New Zealand send teams of six to compete in a variety of management challenges. The best teams win their tournament – not unlike theatre sports – and state winners meet for the grand final. And the sector is big: 110 teams competed in CLG’s 2012 series.

Need for skills

Artist says that the local government sector has an ongoing need for skills, expertise and best practice benchmarks in the technical areas of planning, building and infrastructure management, which are always cross-referred with competing interests such as dealing with environmental issues, bush fires, floods and general public safety.

“Every local body has the same budgetary, management and decisionmaking processes as any medium-sized business,” says Artist. “But the local council has all these other decisions that have to be made. We designed a course called Corporate Management and Organisational Change, precisely to deal with the fact that when local government works well, it’s because they’re shaping places: not vaguely, but specifically. That’s a difficult mission statement – to make a place look and feel the way the community wants it.”

Which is why the CLG has developed itself as a centre for excellence in terms of leadership and leadership development.

Community-minded

Unlike the governments formed at the state and federal levels, says Artist, local government leaders are under a much greater pressure to deliver value to the community and to do things that reflect who and what the community is. “When citizens read about the federal budget or they see the premier of their state making an announcement, it can seem distant. But in local government, the leaders – whether mayoral or management – feel very strongly that they should be making good decisions.”

This difference in local government values and leadership has meant the development of a pure consultancy arm of CLG, which performs commercial projects for clients needing an expert external facilitator in local government.

The CLG’s reputation for expertise has spread sufficiently far that they recently picked up the Seoul Metropolitan Government as a client, designing a series of professional development programs for its senior managers.

This is reflected in a current CLG project called Governing Sydney, in which the Centre is bringing together 42 Sydney local councils and showing them how to develop capacity and develop a forum mechanism so they can talk as one voice when dealing with the NSW state government.

The CLG’s success speaks for itself: it is now a self-funded commercial division of UT S. But perhaps its greatest accolade came in 2009 when the Federal Government decided Australia needed a centre of excellence in local government, awarding the contract and an $8 million grant to the CLG.

Story by Mark Abernethy
Photography by Anthony Geernaert