Approaching leadership in contemporary local government

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Approaching leadership in contemporary local government

All organisations want staff who are able to lead effectively, and for local government in particular this has been an area of great focus and activity.

Councils invest time and resources into leadership programs and initiatives designed to develop the capacity of talented and aspiring senior staff. For a recent ACELG research project, Council Approaches to Leadership, I spoke with eight different councils across Australia to find out what makes for a successful in-house leadership program and also uncover some of the key themes and challenges for contemporary local government leadership.

Telephone interviews were held with representatives from council learning and development departments, including: Fairfield City Council, Knox City Council, Logan City Council, Maroondah City Council, City of Marion, City of Melville, Randwick City Council and City of Salisbury. Each were asked the same series of questions regarding individual and organisational perspectives on leading in local government, the types of leadership programs offered by council, and common challenges faced, as well as what advice they would offer to sector peers.

In my conversations I was struck by each interviewee's passion for leadership and commitment to raising the capability and credibility of local government employees. The conversations were stimulating, intelligent and insightful, and engaging in this type of leadership dialogue is important for sharing knowledge, identifying opportunities for improvement, and validating the good work that is being done across many councils in Australia. Through this research, we intend to provide some discussion prompts for debates on leadership in local government and encourage councils to reflect on and review their leadership practice.

The three main areas highlighted in the interviews as foundational to a good practice approach to a council leadership program were:

A leadership ethos that is 'values-based': An established ethos (this could also be considered a philosophy, attitude or belief system) of leadership and leadership development clearly influences the overall culture of the organisation. When this ethos is 'values-based', core values are considered as fundamental to guiding behaviours, staff wellbeing and organisational potential. For the ethos to be sustainable it must be championed by senior management, in particular the Chief Executive/General Manager, and connect back to the local context and underlying purpose of local government.

A support structure: A good leadership program will have strong and robust structures and be supported by tailored content and methods of learning. The use of particular leadership development models and/or capability frameworks can help strengthen the structure of a program, but “off the shelf” products are not recommended – a program will work best when tailored to the organisational context. In times of limited funds, councils are looking for both effectiveness and efficiency of leadership programs and are exploring ways to be smarter with their resources and keep the program strong and sustainable.

Measuring progress: The area of measuring and evaluating the impact of leadership programs is highlighted in the interviews as an important consideration of a leadership development program in terms of understanding the impact of such programs and assessing the return on investment. While much work is being done by councils to demonstrate progress and impact of learning and development initiatives, the interviewed councils indicated that this can be a challenge, and all were keen to develop and improve in this area.

In addition to these foundational areas, examples of innovation and ideas for leadership programs for local government are outlined within the report. These include the total in-house design of a customised leadership methodology by one council; ways to connect staff wellbeing with quality of service to the community; the exploration of partnerships and exchanges across councils; and utilising and investing in existing staff capital. Interviewees also placed an emphasis on building leadership capability across local government as whole – both within individual councils and across the sector.

While this research is based on a small sample of councils, the outcomes provide a range of areas for consideration and the report includes many direct quotes from the interviewees as food for thought. This is an exciting time to be engaging with leaders in local government, with new ways of thinking and working emerging, stimulating contextual change, executive teams with belief and vision, and a national cohort of committed leadership enthusiasts.

Download Sophi's latest report – Council approaches to leadership: Research into good practice

Read more on the UTS:CLG Graduate Certificate in Local Government Leadership.

Sophi Bruce is a program specialist at the UTS Centre for Local Government with a focus on leadership.