So much to do, so little time!
In 1989, amalgamations in New Zealand saw approximately 700 local bodies become 87. I was the CEO responsible for the amalgamation of four local governments in the West of metropolitan Auckland. Turning the clock forward, in the lead up to the most recent amalgamation in Auckland, I was the local government advisor to the then Prime Minister of New Zealand (Helen Clark then John Key), and directly managed the liaison between the Government and Auckland Councils during the Royal Commission of Enquiry and during the preparation for amalgamation.
So I have some idea of what the process of metropolitan amalgamation takes.
The initial timeline for the reform process in Metropolitan Perth was outlined in the summary of the reform toolkit. It had the process complete in 6-12 months from the establishment of the new entities in July 2015. And that was assuming that all the local governments had completed a current state analysis by August 2014, when planning for amalgamation would begin in earnest. By March 2015, exploration, analysis, consolidation and integration of data from the amalgamating partners would be complete as well as the review of services, service delivery, organisational and staffing structures. Consultation with communities, stakeholders and employees would be undertaken alongside regular reporting and risk management. The toolkit summary says:
Achievement of milestones and time-critical tasks is paramount.
This timeline was always going to be challenging but it is way behind schedule. Assuming the reform goes ahead, local governments will be under enormous pressure to be ready in time for the July 2015 start date. In reality, the expectations of what can be completed in the remaining time is likely to be pulled back. When I was appointed CEO-designate in 1989, there were only two months until the new Waitakere City went live. Very little preparation had been undertaken. Day 1, from a community point of view, looked alot like the day before. Most of the amalgamation work happened after day 1, following a prioritised program of work that took approximately 3 years.
We have talked before about the “hidden gems of the reform” – including the promise of a shared vision and collaborative action for the future of Perth by state and local government, community groups and other stakeholders. Another hidden gem is the WA State Government’s response to recommendation 10 of the Robson Review:
One of the key recommendations supported by the Government will see a strong focus on community engagement. The recommendation calls for the newly created local governments to “make the development and support of best practice community engagement a priority, including consideration of place management approaches and participatory governance models”.
This is expected to be a major consideration as the changes take place and would see the new local governments working closely with people right across their community, encouraging widespread interest and participation in their local area.
Forging a new “common unity” – from local government to local governance
While existing community identities will remain, a new “common unity” is possible, with a vision and potential to be articulated and pursued. While the local authority is mired in the nuts and bolts of IT systems, asset registers, finance, human resources, maintaining service delivery and bringing a coherent organisation together, it is important to also think about how the new community will be brought together and engaged in the creative process of setting a course for the future. Once the new Councillors are in place after the elections in October 2015, how (and how quickly) will they exercise their civic leadership role in this space?
Post 1989, this saw the dormitory suburbs of West Auckland transformed into “Waitakere City” with a strong identity of sustainability, creativity and social inclusion. The communities of the former boroughs were strengthened through a place-based “urban villages” strategy. And Waitakere’s identity is still alive and kicking even though the local government has merged into the new Auckland City – the latter now bringing the whole isthmus together.
This takes more than the traditional roles of local government. Activating shared leadership, energy and resources across the new “community of communities”, through a broader approach of community governance, is where the true potential of reform lies.
An upcoming seminar by the Institute of Public Administration, is drawing upon the experience of Australian and New Zealand local government reform to explore the keys to success and opportunities in Western Australia. The seminar, Opportunities in Change: Implementing Local Government Reform, features authors of several relevant studies from the Australian Centre for Excellence in Local Government (ACELG).