10 – What has changed in local government in Victoria since the 1990’s?

Much has changed in Victorian local government since the reforms of the Kennett Liberal/National Party coalition government in the mid 1990’s. It is worth reviewing some of thosem reforms for the benefit of those people who have entered the sector more recently. It may explain why some things are the way that they are.

The context for these reforms is relevant. There had been limited change in local government structure or function for decades. Voluntary amalgamations were resisted. Some regional resource sharing initiatives had been put in place, mainly in rural areas. The organisational structure had changed in the 1980’s from the traditional ‘two headed’ Town Clerk and City Engineer model, to a corporate structure headed by a CEO. A number of new functions had appeared, for example information technology, human resources and occupational health and safety. The focus on ‘roads, rates and rubbish’ had begun to change, but only just and only slowly.

The Kennett reforms accelerated the rate of change. Indeed, many onlookers would say that they ‘threw out the baby with the bath water’ in their haste. The reforms were driven by the public choice ideology evident in other conservative governments, most notably that of Margaret Thatcher in the UK.   This involved use of private sector management approaches in the public sector, creation of pseudo-markets for public services, and privatisation. There was a very strong view that local government needed to change quickly to become more efficient and accountable, and that councils were unwilling to change unless compelled.

The objectives of the reforms are much easier to see with hindsight – decrease costs, improve efficiency, reduce the size and scope of the public sector, and, importantly for the Kennett government, reduce the influence of trade unions. There was a focus on councils becoming ‘enablers’ rather than service providers, creating competition for delivery of public services, and separation of policy making from service provision in accordance with the now infamous ‘steering, not rowing’ concept from Reinventing Government by Osborne and Gaebler, which had been published in 1992.

The legislative changes introduced included electoral reform, senior management contracts, municipal amalgamations, rating controls, compulsory competitive tendering, and a 20% rate reduction. As you can imagine, this raft of changes created turmoil. Overall, the combined effect was to diminish local government and limit its role. In subsequent reforms, little has been done to re-establish local government as an effective level of government. Indeed, the rate capping currently proposed by the Daniels Labor government further diminishes it.

There have been some benefits. The forced amalgamations resulted in larger and more powerful local governments capable of more efficient service delivery. Amalgamation has provided economies of scale, especially for some of the very small urban or rural municipalities who were joined to their larger neighbours. In addition, there is now more responsiveness to customers and the community. This is the result of a number of the reforms, most notably the need to reduce rates by 20% and competitively tender services. Councils needed to start talking to their communities about services that would be withdrawn, reduced or otherwise changed. The formation of new council organisations during amalgamations facilitated the implementation of major IT systems and significantly improved the capabilities of councils.

Some of the disbenefits of the reforms are also evident. The electoral reforms moved councils away from annual and partial council elections to periodic and whole of council elections. This has increased the potential for episodic and transformational changes when large numbers of councillors change at an election. The linked reform of planning processes has locked councils into planning cycles integrated with the election cycle. It is now difficult to effectively think or plan further ahead than the next election. For some councils the forced rate reduction was unsustainable. Residents have suffered from reduced services since and, in real terms it has taken these councils 20 years to recover their revenues. Cost cutting and competitive tendering ended many careers prematurely and resulted in a ‘brain drain’ from local government. Council organisations also became much flatter (to copy the private sector and be competitive), which has reduced career development opportunities.

The fixed tenure of senior officers, especially the CEO, has had a significant impact. Survival and success for the CEO is now dependent on their relationship with the council. Many CEO’s have not had their contract renewed and some have been terminated because their relationship with their councillors deteriorated. For most CEO’s this is now their highest priority. In response to this new pressure, they have tended to appoint senior officers who will support them, and the needs of the organisation or the community have become secondary.

In summary, the reforms of the 1990’s have decreased the resources available to local government and service levels in many areas, particularly those that are resource intensive, have declined. This has had impacts on the sustainability of infrastructure for with reduced capital funding available for asset renewal. Competition has increased in service delivery. And there is now much more competition in thinking about policy and strategy. It is no longer the sole domain of the administration and this has led to some new thinking and innovation. The focus on customer service has made the ‘voice’ of the individual louder than ever, which has improved customer service, but has also created some conflicts with preferences expressed by the broader community. Most influentially, organisational leadership now depends much more on the goodwill in their relationship with the councillors for success.