Councils will increasingly turn to partnerships and consolidation in the future to offset tightening funding, according to a new study of local government leaders in Australia and New Zealand.
Tapping into insights from Managing Directors, CEOs, and Senior Managers from 176 local councils across the Tasman, the report claims that while 73 percent of respondents believe providing sustainable infrastructure will be the main policy issue in the next 10 years, about a quarter (26 percent) think the scale of requirements will exceed the amount of available budget.
The squeeze means that 40 percent of leaders expect councils to look to strategic partnerships in the coming decade while 32 percent of local government leaders believe council mergers will be the primary operational response to meet future challenges.
Less than half of local government leaders (42 percent) believe their council already has the management skills to successfully manage transformation required in the next decade.
Associate Professor Roberta Ryan, UTS Centre for Local Government believes the majority of councils already have plans in place to adapt to future challenges.
“Most local government leaders are canny enough to understand that they won’t be able to go it alone during the coming years and they’re looking at every angle to best meet their citizens’ needs,” Ryan adds.
“It has obviously been a period of significant change for many local councils across Australia and New Zealand, however their leaders remain very optimistic and focused on the challenges ahead.”
Almost 96 per cent of respondents expect to see increased local government service consolidation in the next decade, however there was much debate about what form it would take.
Findings show that 84 percent of councils will operate some services under a shared services model, while 62 percent believe larger councils with bigger budgets and devolved powers would be put in place.
In addition, 55 percent believe significant consolidation will result in a small number of local councils with 38 percent believing significant proportion of services would be privatised.
Changing citizen drives digital need
Ryan says that most local government leaders were acutely aware of the increasing digital needs of their constituents.
Some 60 percent of respondents strongly agree the always-connected citizen is likely to be the biggest change in citizen characteristics leading up to 2025.
In response many are likely to increase their digital footprint with 80 percent of local councils agreeing that social media will become the primary tool for disseminating information to citizens, while 79 percent believe the main interaction between citizen and council will be via self-service technology.
Richard Fiddis, Managing Director, Civica International, says the technology shift would require long term planning for many councils.
“Many councils anticipate that new and emerging technology developments will have a positive impact on the communities that they serve - from reducing operational cost, improving responsiveness and forming closer relationships with citizens,” he adds.
“However local government needs to begin building the foundation for their digital council today.
“Many respondents believe councils are under threat of falling behind increasingly technology savvy citizens and increased operational pressures.”
Looking ahead, overall local government leaders remain upbeat about an increasingly online relationship with their constituents, with more than 81 percent stating technology will facilitate more effective two-way communication.
Underpinning the digital citizen change will be an overhaul of backroom technology.
The research also reveals that 80 percent believe cloud-based applications will most shape council services, while 42 percent believe automated assets would play a decisive role, with machines replacing existing manual tasks.
For local government staff, 85 percent believe more flexible working conditions supported by improved mobile device would be ubiquitous during the coming decade.