Three recent local government leadership pieces from ACELG, MCC and IBAC.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                         1500 words

From time to time something worthwhile will be written about leadership in local government. Mostly, what is written is highly aspirational and touching, but not useful. Three recent reports do provide a useful insight into local government leadership.

The first is a report ‘Council approaches to leadership – Research into good practice’, published in April 2015 by the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government (ACELG) and the University of Sydney – Centre for Local Government.  It reports on a research project conducted with 8 councils to look at approaches to leadership development identified as ‘good practice’. The aims are to:

  • Present examples of councils with good practice approaches to in-house leadership development initiatives.
  • Outline the themes and program structures within the council examples that work well to build the leadership capacity of local government managers.
  • Provide some practical guidance for local governments in developing their own leadership programs.
  • Explore some different examples of leadership capability frameworks in use by the sector (p.2).

A number of leadership development theories and models in use by councils were identified (p.13).

ACELG models and frameworks

The common element of each approach was identified as ‘self awareness’ – understanding how personal motivations, values and behaviours can connect to higher performance and the improved ability to lead others (p.13). Three foundations of good practice leadership programs were identified (p.3):

ACELG foundations of good leadership practice

I suppose this is where I started to find the report interesting. In addition to the three foundations, the report includes areas of challenge in implementing a leadership program. I realise that the main focus of the research is on leadership development but I think this is intrinsically linked to leadership practice. Many of the challenges identified reflect this – leading leadership at the Executive level; having open communication; and managing talent.

Other report outcomes include identification of ‘areas for consideration by councils and the sector as whole’, (p.4) including that ‘the support and commitment of the CEO is crucial to the success of any leadership initiative in the organisation’. An interesting observation is that:

“While developing individual and organisational capacity is important, there are wider strategic purposes to leadership that are unique to the sector. They include working effectively with the community and elected members, and raising the profile of local government as a desirable profession (p.4).”

I am not convinced that the last point is critical but I would agree that there are larger leadership issues for organisational leaders in local government. These tie in with the idea that there are various sources of accountability in local government and with the general concept of creating value in public services.

ACELG values based leadership ethos

I will comment briefly on the ‘values-based’ leadership ethos before moving on to the next report of interest. The opening statement is that:

“A council’s underlying ethos (which could also be called 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 regarded as fundamental to guiding behaviours, staff wellbeing and organisational potential (p.8).”

This is where I believe that local government leadership and its leader development programs struggle the most. The top management philosophy, attitude or belief system is frequently driven by career aspirations or survival in their current role. It is not focused on the organisation or the community. Their actions signal this loud and clear. The gap between espoused values and actual values is apparent to everyone working in the organisation. Australians are quick to spot double standards.

If leadership development is to rely on ‘the support and commitment of the CEO’, fulfill ‘wider strategic purposes, and be values-based, a lot of work needs to be done on the leaders first.

The second report is the Organisational Capability Review’ completed in May 2015 for Melbourne City Council by Jude Munro, Dr Bronte Adams and Steve Parker.

The review is an independent assessment of how the organisation is performing. It examined how the City of Melbourne sets its direction, plans and prioritises, collaborates, manages organisational performance and develops and motivates its people. Jude Munro AO   Dr Bronte Adams    Steve Parker

The review is forward-looking and assesses how well Melbourne is equipped to meet future needs and deliver the very best outcomes for its Council and community.  It was designed to be quick to complete and to take a high-level view of the operations of the council (p.10). The focus is primarily on senior leadership, but the review is also informed by the views of a cross section of employees. The capability review model used is shown below.

Melbourne capability review model

The review report provides an assessment of the Melbourne’s capability in the following areas (p.13):

  1. Leadership: the review assessed the organisation’s leadership against its ability to set direction, motivate people and develop people.
  2. Strategy: the review examined whether the Melbourne has outcome-focused strategies, makes evidence-based choices and whether employees collaborate and build common purpose.
  3. Delivery: the review looked at four criteria – innovative delivery; the ability to plan, resource and prioritise; shared commitment and sound delivery models; and managing

Melbourne’s assessment against the review criteria is shown below (p.14).

melbourne assessment of capability

The key findings for leadership (p.6) are that collaboration and working cross-functionally are not systematically supported; Directors are not seen to operate as a cohesive team or as a team leading the whole organisation; Directors are seen to focus on operational issues to the detriment of leading strategic approaches; there is no reliable corporate approach to talent management or succession planning; and HR has not functioned strategically or to enable change.

For many of us working in local government there isn’t anything new in these findings. Melbourne’s leadership problems are not unique. Few councils have a cohesive Executive providing vision and planning for the organisation (p.17); a high functioning Executive making decisions with discipline and visibility (p.17); a strong focus on cross-organisational processes (p.18); leadership that is a engaging, articulate and inspirational (p.20); a consistent and clear framework for leadership development (p.21); or support for talent management (p.24). These are the great leadership and management challenges facing the sector.

The final report is the ‘Local Government: Review of council works depots’ report completed by the Victorian Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission in May 2015. The review was conducted to identify common vulnerabilities and opportunities to strengthen processes in local government works depots. It looked at four areas of depot management – procurement; management of bulk consumables; management of small plant and equipment; and leadership and culture (p.3).

It identified that leadership is an essential element in building a positive organisational culture in which corruption is not tolerated.

“Effective leaders must communicate behavioural expectations to staff and demonstrate values (p.5).”

The review found that to encourage a positive organizational culture in works depots, management needs to be visible and accessible to operational staff. Messages must also be communicated in a variety of ways to recognise the more limited literacy skills common in depot workforces (p.5).

The report identified visibility of managers as an important aspect of depot leadership. The report raised the concern that when managers seem distant, unavailable or disinterested, subcultures may emerge (p.69). I think this is a risk in any local government workforce. Having worked in many depots, I believe the difference identified by IBAC is the sensitivity to management that exists in depots. Managers are watched closely for signals about standards and workers are quickly influenced by what they see – when it suits them. It can be a relatively unsophisticated workplace and some of the filters present in other council workplaces are often absent.

Managing depots is a specialist area of local government management and this is often unrecognized. Not every manager is cut out for depot management and the constant leadership challenges that exist. It is the litmus test for organisational leadership. I have heard CEO’s say that depot workers have the most finely tuned ‘bullshit detectors’. Double standards are noticed and not tolerated.

A values -based leadership ethos is essential in a depot where honesty and accountability are key cultural issues.

The link between personal motivations, values and behaviours, and the ability to lead others to achieve high performance is well made in each report. At Melbourne, it resulted in a divisive culture with inadequate accountability for ‘whole of organisation’ results. In depots the behavior of leaders creates the standard – actions speak much louder than words. Communication is a key to leadership. At Melbourne leaders failed to communicate decisions or provide the ‘engaging and articulate narrative’ expected.

Is this narrative evident at your council?

Bruce, Sophi 2015. Council approaches to leadership: Research into good practice Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government, University of Technology Sydney, April.

Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, 2015. ‘Local Government: Review of council works depots’ , May.

Munro, Jude, Adams, Dr Bronte, and Parker, Steve 2015. Organisational Capability Review, May.



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