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Reform Options

3.1 Require consistent, contemporary community engagement strategies

Community expectations of engagement are increasing, including the need for far greater community involvement in council decision making. Appropriate and consistent engagement guidelines would facilitate engagement approaches that are uniform across Tasmania and informed by best practice.

The Local Government Legislation Review recommended that existing community engagement provisions under the Local Government Act 1993 should be removed, as they are overly prescriptive, and require councils to undertake engagement through mechanisms which are generally outdated. We believe replacing the existing provisions with a requirement that each council develop their own community engagement plan would support a consistent approach to engagement, while still allowing individual councils the autonomy and flexibility to tailor how they engage, and what they engage on, with their local communities.

  • Councils do not provide enough opportunities for genuine input into local decision making, including consulting on decisions that directly impact ratepayers.
  • Councils do not always ‘make the effort’ to engage with all members of the community in ways that are relevant to them and on the issues that affect them. We heard this in particular from Aboriginal communities.
  • At its simplest, good engagement begins with ease of availability and transparency of information.
  • In recent years, some councillors have been subjected to unhealthy communication through social media from a small number of individuals.
  • Social media has rarely been used for productive engagement with communities on substantive issues, such as council priorities and budgets.
  • Many Tasmanians under 45 noted that their councils fail to listen to or engage with younger voices, particularly when making service or infrastructure decisions, or addressing local challenges and issues. We heard broadly that councils should be engaging with all their residents so that they can effectively support their communities, or advocate for action on local issues to other levels of government.

Evidence shows that, where communities are engaged in the decision-making process, they are more likely to trust and accept council decisions. These decisions are therefore more likely to deliver good public value, as they will better reflect the community’s needs and priorities.

An increasingly common approach to supporting engagement and representation is through implementing comprehensive engagement plans and systems supported by technology and professional engagement staff. Community engagement planning is mandated for councils in NSW, WA, Victoria, and South Australia.

Additional processes to better engage communities could include a requirement to prepare Community Impact Assessments when deciding to deliver non-core services or acquiring new infrastructure (see 1.3), and implementing a best practice performance monitoring and management framework for local government (see 3.2).

3.2 Establish a public-facing performance reporting, monitoring and management framework

Councils are currently required to report on a range of financial and asset management, service activity, and regulatory compliance matters, but these data are underutilised and fragmented. The data also may not reflect the issues of greatest interest to local residents. There is a dearth of consistent, publicly available information on service cost, quality, and community satisfaction. More streamlined collection and presentation of service level data in particular would reduce both the administrative burden on councils and improve community transparency by providing the community with a clear line of sight to councils’ long-term strategic directions and the decisions they make.

The Local Government Legislation Review recommended a local government performance reporting framework to support enhanced consolidation and accessibility of existing council reporting. We believe there is scope to build a framework which presents council performance data in a central online platform, modelled on approaches taken in other states.

  • The State Government should assist with developing the framework, and the collection and communication of robust, consistent data from all councils.
  • The design must be flexible enough to recognise that different priorities are important in different areas.
  • Any framework should include relevant and agreed metrics for measuring wellbeing where councils can influence outcomes. This would signal the importance of community wellbeing as a fundamental purpose of local government.

Tasmania has fallen behind many other jurisdictions, which in recent years have introduced a range of best practice, online comparative reporting and benchmarking metrics and tools for local government performance monitoring. In particular, wellbeing is becoming increasingly recognised by governments in their data collection and reporting, reflecting the fact that economic activity on its own does not represent the state of a community.

Earlier in the Future of Local Government Review process, the Board released two data dashboards which collate and present publicly available data on Tasmanian councils with the purpose of helping to inform the public’s knowledge of what councils do, and to support engagement with the Review. These dashboards were well received by the sector and public, and could be considered a first step in enhancing transparency and reporting of council data in Tasmania.

Western Australia, Victoria, and New South Wales have developed approaches to online performance reporting which provide ‘one-stop shops’ for accessing consistent information and data on councils accessible by the public. These mechanisms enhance council governance by making performance more transparent, accountable, clear, and comparable. This approach also facilitates and supports councils in their continuous improvement of functions and services.

3.3 Establish clear performance-based benchmarks and review ‘triggers’ based on the performance framework

This option builds on the performance reporting, monitoring and management framework in Option 3.2. It could be used to establish performance benchmarks, and a set of clear and proportionate intervention options when benchmarks are not being met. Intervention options could range from a council being requested to explain its performance, through to service improvement directions, or efficiency audits by an external regulatory authority.

The Local Government Legislation Review proposed the introduction of new powers to install ‘financial supervisors’ and ‘monitors/advisors’ as an early intervention measure to address governance and/or financial concerns at the individual council level. Councils would have stronger incentives to risk manage and ‘self-regulate’, including acting on recommendations of their audit panels.

More robust information on council performance could also be used by the Director of Local Government to take a risk-based approach when overseeing council compliance activities under the Local Government Act 1993. It was proposed in the Local Government Legislation Review that audit panels be required to provide their reports to the Director of Local Government, upon the Director’s request. This would be a solid first step in ensuring enhanced provision of information on council performance.

  • Developing performance benchmarks in a collaborative way would be a valuable exercise allowing councils to learn from each other.
  • There was some merit in rolling audits of efficiency and effectiveness that the Local Government Board previously undertook. This did lead to some council improvement, however it was a significant process which was somewhat arbitrary. If reinstated, the review processes should be more focussed.
  • Audit panels are not effectively resourced, and it is currently unclear if councils are responding to their advice.

The Local Government Board used to be required under the Local Government Act 1993 to undertake regular, rolling ‘efficiency and effectiveness’ reviews of individual councils. This practice has fallen away, but could easily be re-introduced.

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