Notes from Down Under

In January of this year I had the opportunity to spend some time with local government colleagues in Australia and New Zealand, both in search of better weather, but mainly to explore the talent issues they were facing and whether there was anything we as a sector could learn from their experiences.

While it is important to remember that local government in both countries is structured slightly different to the UK – for example, councillors don’t represent political parties and the largest council in Australia, Brisbane, has only 27 councillors – the purpose of ensuring communities function and thrive remains the same.

There are three main topics I want to share that are relevant to issues we are currently facing. 

Skills gaps

Planning, Finance and Transport:

These three areas consistently came up in conversation with local government professionals. I won’t discuss planning for now as I think that is an area we all share difficulties recruiting into, although the other two areas require a little more exploration.

In terms of finance, after years of austerity and funding cuts, UK councils now have a much higher degree of fiscal autonomy by comparison with Australian and New Zealand councils, who still receive roughly 10%-15% funding respectively from federal Government grants.

UK councils have met the challenge in a number of ways, including by taking a more commercial approach toward raising funds and as a result, finance professionals have become much more robust on financial reporting and auditing.

These skills are beginning to be in high demand in both Australia and New Zealand as councils increasingly look to become more financially sustainable and independent.

Transport and infrastructure are sectors where generally, the UK and Europe are more looked to as industry experts.

The two most high-profile positions within these sectors in Melbourne are currently both filled by Europeans, including Yarra Trams, the largest tram network in the world.

The size and geography in Australia are clear challenges that we don’t necessarily share, but its Government is investing Aus$100bn into its transport infrastructure over the next 10 years and there will certainly be opportunities for UKbased candidates in these industries to share their knowledge and expertise.

Diversity:

Diversity and inclusion in local government is still a fundamental problem facing all of us. Recent studies of councils across Australia and the UK indicate female representation of councillors is stagnating and has been for a number of years, hovering around 30-35%. The outlook for New Zealand is slightly more optimistic. In its most recent elections in 2019, it reached a record high of 42%, which is nearly double the number of female board members in the private sector.

In comparison, Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) representation is lagging much further behind, although it is an issue the UK is further ahead towards addressing.

Fourteen per cent of councillors in single- tiered local authorities in the UK are BAME. The figures are much lower for Australia and New Zealand.

There are no simple solutions to these issues, but perhaps we can take a moment to reflect on the positive momentum that is under way in the UK as we continue to strive towards a more equally represented and inclusive workforce.

Pride: This is definitely an issue that is bound to stir up mixed emotions. Something that really stuck with me during my visit was how connected both Australia and New Zealand’s local authorities are to their communities, particularly in more rural areas.

Community consultation factors very highly in decision-making, and wider community engagement is very good as well. Residents had a real understanding of the benefits of local government and the services it delivered.

A career in local government is viewed as prestigious, and I wonder if we start to change the narrative about local government in the UK and highlight some of the brilliant work that councils lead on, whether this might go some way in tackling the issue of attracting talent to the sector.

These are just a few of the bigger headline stories, but there are so many more that can be discussed.

Penna will be actively exploring opportunities available to UK public sector employees with professional bodies in Australia and New Zealand, either for permanent positions or fixed- term arrangements, so if you would be interested in finding out more, please get in touch.

Tim Farr is Associate Director – Local Government Executive Interim at Penna.

Email: Tim.Farr@penna.com

Tim Farr [square]

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