New Report Examines the Roles and Expectations of Rural-Remote and Indigenous Local Government
The Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government has published new research that examines the role and expectations of rural-remote and Indigenous local governments. The report includes a profile of rural-remote councils, outlines current federal, state and community expectations on the theme, and identifies areas for further research.
Entitled Role and Expectations of Rural-Remote and Indigenous Local Government, the report is part of ACELG’s broader strategy to build the capacity of small rural-remote and Indigenous councils across Australia through its Rural-Remote and Indigenous Local Government Program.
Prepared by Alan Morton of Morton Consulting Services, the report builds on ACELG’s work on this area from 2011, Capacity Building Strategy for Rural-Remote and Indigenous Local Government which noted that the current demands and expectations placed on rural-remote and Indigenous local government are unsustainable, especially if they are left to grow unchecked.
ACELG’s Assistant Director, Melissa Gibbs noted:
“Rural-remote and Indigenous councils play an important role in local communities. They provide a broader range of services than their urban counterparts as they are required to fill service gaps usually provided by other spheres of government. Yet the councils face tremendous challenges in recruiting and retaining skilled staff, managing assets and their dependency on grants mean they have limited control over revenue sources.
“The Centre prepared this report to gain a clearer picture of some of these financial challenges and to assist in developing capacity to provide sustainable local governance for local communities.”
Some of the key observations from the report are:
- Identifying service priorities is a matter for each council to determine, rendering it almost impossible to propose a core set of local government services
- Councils need to base decisions about the scope and scale of services on a robust community, corporate and strategic planning process that links to long term financial planning
- The ability for rural-remote and Indigenous councils to choose what services they deliver is limited because of their lack of own source revenue or untied grants
- The regulatory and administrative burden imposed on local governments and how this constrains councils from what should be their core focus of delivering services that meet constituents’ needs and expectations.
ACELG has proposed a number of next steps to address these and other issues. The report can be downloaded here.
Feedback on the report and its recommendations are welcome to Melissa.Gibbs@acelg.org.au.
Article from The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday March 6 here.
One of the key conclusions of the report is that identifying service priorities is a matter for each council to determine, rendering it almost impossible to propose a core set of local government services. Section 4.3 of the report notes the importance of ensuring that councils base their decisions about the scope and scale of services they will deliver on a robust community, corporate and strategic planning process that links to long term financial planning. ACLEG believes that this is an area ripe for further investigation, as planning capacity is the key to enabling rural-remote and Indigenous councils to shape and meet community expectations of the role they will play and the level and nature of services they will deliver. As the summary in Appendix B shows, all jurisdictions are now requiring this sort of integrated planning.
This leads to a possible action for ACELG to work with jurisdictions, local government associations and rural-remote and Indigenous councils to develop planning tools or frameworks tailored to the needs and circumstances of small, remote and Indigenous councils. This action is contemplated in Section 4.4 of the report. There have been a number of attempts to develop planning or assessment tools for the sustainability of councils, so further work in this area would be able to build on the previous initiatives, but would aim to come up with something practical and specifically tailored to help small and remote councils manage the complex task of settling on a service mix that is financially sustainable and meets the competing expectations of constituents and other levels of government.
As councils need to genuinely engage their constituents in the planning process, the tools would incorporate ACELG’s complementary work on community engagement, in order to create greater community awareness about the appropriate role of local government (and a council’s resources and capacity to deliver), and thereby assist to address the issue raised in section 4.4 about managing community expectations.
The report also notes that the ability for rural-remote and Indigenous councils to choose what services they deliver is limited because of their lack of own source revenue or untied grants. This flags another area for future action arising from the recognition that in order for these councils to exercise genuine choice, negotiation with funding bodies about the council’s capacity to deliver certain services is required. Research into the true cost of delivering some significant devolved services would be useful to assess whether the funding bodies really do provide sufficient resources or whether councils are subsidising these services. Such an evidence base would provide substance for councils in their negotiation with government funding bodies. This issue might be able to be addressed in practice through the integrated planning processes referred to above. Perhaps new methodologies/frameworks for these planning processes in rural-remote and Indigenous councils should include a phase where there is full and frank dialogue and negotiation with government funding bodies about the council’s capacity and realistic resourcing to deliver the funded services.
Finally, ACELG’s Capacity Building Strategy for Rural-remote and Indigenous Local Government identifies the regulatory and administrative burden imposed on local governments and how this constrains councils from what should be their core focus of delivering services that meet constituents’ needs and expectations. ACELG’s strategy refers to the much-repeated call for legislators to acknowledge that the same level of regulation may not be necessary or appropriate for rural-remote councils as their larger urban counterparts. ACELG could undertake further to identify the most onerous and inappropriate aspects of current local government legislation for small and remote councils, which might assist these in arguments argue for legislative reform.