Local councils are not unfamiliar with crisis management and providing their constituents with emergency relief. From droughts to bushfires, major storms and long-term erosion, small government needs to have a diverse skill set to handle the myriad of issues that can arise in their communities.
COVID-19, however, presents a challenge unlike anything they’ve had to experience before. From financial disruption due to residents being unable to pay their rates, to the need for internal staff to wear multiple hats in the workplace, agility is essential for modern local councils to survive.
Investing in the right projects
PM-Partners has spent 25 years working with a variety of local councils, helping them adopt agile processes, pivot to new strategies and ride out the challenges unique to small government. And right now, it’s more important than even for local councils to use their funding wisely.
“Councils are finding it extremely difficult at the moment because they have to be very, very careful, especially with the lockdown due to COVID-19,” says Leanne Griffiths, an experienced consultant, organisational change management expert and former Head of People and Culture at PM-Partners.
“A local council’s primary source of funding is still their rates, and if you think about it, they haven’t been able to increase those rates and lots of people aren’t paying their rates because they no longer have a job, so the councils are providing them with a grace period.”
Leanne says because it’s taxpayer money that funds local councils, they need to be much more transparent about how they generate new income – whether that’s through grants or funding from the state government.
One Sydney council finding efficiency through smarter initiatives
PM-Partners has worked alongside local councils for many years, including a historic council in Western Sydney. According to Leanne, the initiatives they started together are more critical now than ever.
“We started on a journey with this local council in respect to building a project management framework,” she says. “But alongside that, we also helped them set up a portfolio office so they could monitor all their ongoing projects in one consolidated view.
“What that’s allowed them to do is get more efficient about what they are doing, what the timings are and to ensure resources are appropriately allocated. Efficiency comes with that, so they’re finding they are able to deliver projects in a more efficient way. Any potential difficulties are spotted straight away because everything is in the one place.”
Getting total visibility
Another local council on the NSW South Coast is going through a similar process with PM-Partners, notably developing a portfolio office so they can achieve total visibility across the whole of council. This helps them streamline their community initiatives while also ensuring the councillors truly understand where they can spend their funding.
“This particular local council needs that visibility right now because of the funding situation,” Leanne says. “They need to know ‘What are the high priorities?’, ‘What needs to be done?’ and ‘Where’s the line drawn from a funding perspective?’
“So in this crisis, funding and portfolio management have been critical components.”
Upskilling despite reduced funding
There’s a very real risk that not only will COVID-19 destroy businesses – and perhaps entire industries – but it could also cause some organisations to stagnate, as they no longer have the financial capacity to invest in their people and their long-term strategies.
Leanne says hiring is being affected, as well as the amount – and frequency – of consultants they can bring into the office for upskilling purposes. However, that upskilling remains an essential task in order to keep the councils running smoothly, and to help them hit the ground running when this pandemic has run its course.
“When a council wants to set up a portfolio office, for instance, it’s about educating their internal team and bringing that skill level up,” Leanne says. “Councillors have to be very strict in respect to the funding, such as getting consultants to come – they have to be very specific.”
So whether it’s setting up and running a portfolio office or project frameworks, there must be the ability to bring people over to those new teams. Without the funding to hire additional staff, the challenge then becomes upskilling internally – and training them up with external consultants.
“That means people may be multitasking more and wearing lots of different hats in their role,” Leanne says. “They might be a project coordinator to begin with, but now they also have to support the portfolio office set-up so their team can get that consolidated view across everything.”
That should be the biggest focus at the moment, according to Leanne: defining the internal capability first and foremost, and then upskilling those capabilities.
“To do that, local councils might need to bring in consultants for upskilling support, or they might need some external education to complement the knowledge they are already bringing to the table.”