Future directions - Back to the future to improve community service

Article image - Future directions - Back to the future to improve community service Alison Leighton, CEO, Baw Baw Shire Council

It’s rare these days not to hear someone on talk-back radio, letters to the editor or social media complaining about their local council.
With low community participation levels and poor turnout at many local elections, it seems many residents have either given up or made a decision to express their dissatisfaction through conscious neglect of council.

The reasons for these high levels of community disdain for local government are many, including ever tightening financial constraints on council coffers and the ability to criticise any action at any time thanks to the relentless glare of social media.

At Baw Baw Shire Council, home to one of Melbourne’s fastest growing regional areas, we’re tackling these issues head on and in some surprisingly old-fashioned ways.

Our philosophy is simple: We are committed to public service but that does not mean public services should stand still. As servants of the people, we should be agents of the changes that our community and businesses want.

Some of our lessons can come from private enterprise where results are measured by outcomes, not activity. And to meet people’s ever-rising expectations, policy making and Shire services must reflect continuous learning and improvement.

While this sounds logical enough, the tools we have employed to get there are many, including introduction of online technologies such as Automated Bots and Live Chat to give community members alternative, dynamic ways of contacting the Shire.

Pressures are particularly acute in planning, and as one of Victoria’s fastest growing precincts for residential growth, we have introduced a range of new services including a ‘business concierge’ to give people direct contact with a team member capable of cutting through many of their planning and approval issues.

In spite of or because of my 10 years in senior public sector positions as well as obtaining both an MBA and completing a leadership qualification at Harvard Business School, I have seen that the prime factor in providing premium public service to ratepayers, is empowering your team.

Recent surveys reveal that the top factor for millennials when applying for jobs is the opportunity to learn and grow. Remuneration is important but the key for many people staying with an organisation is the knowledge that it invests in its people through providing strong mentors and professional growth prospects.

If an organisation is only as good as its people, then every effort must be made to ensure they are looked after, valued and properly rewarded.

Developing a new set of values for the organisation also is important, but only if they mean something.

We encourage officers to let me and other members of the Executive Leadership Team know when something isn’t working and to feel empowered enough to make suggestions on how we can improve.

We’re all in this together.