Local government leaders from across Australia are most concerned about digital transformation and the wellbeing of their communities in a post-COVID environment, new survey findings have revealed.
The Australian Local Government CEO Index 2021, released by consulting firm Davidson, has presented the priorities of 110 council leaders from regional and metropolitan locations.
Nationally, digital transformation was the highest-ranking priority for council CEOs. This was followed by community resilience and wellbeing; business confidence; risk confidence; and building a high-performance culture.
The survey was conducted in late 2020 to get a better understanding of the post-pandemic outlook of council CEOs. Local government leaders were asked about the impacts of COVID-19 in relation to six key themes, including employee wellbeing, technology, financial sustainability, community engagement, risk and governance, and operational excellence.
Around half of survey respondents said operational excellence was positively impacted by COVID-19. Adam Meadows, senior partner advisory lead at Davidson, said this finding was not surprising.
“As well as redefining services and focusing on the ‘must dos’, having an optimal workplace is a key enabler to operational excellence. Where redefining services focused on ‘what we do’, the ways of working focused on ‘who and how we do it’,” he said.
“The key question will be, how do we sustain the benefits of operational excellence and keep it a priority? Leaders will need to look at why they exist, what they’re meant to deliver, and are their services and the operating models set up for them to be able to do that.”
In regard to financial stability, 73% of metro respondents felt they were negatively impacted by COVID-19, compared to 54% of regional.
Half of the survey respondents said employee wellbeing was negatively impacted by COVID-19. Moreton Bay Regional Council CEO Greg Chemello said this area was a concern.
“The difference between metropolitan councils like ours and rural/remote in terms of this issue is stark,” he said.
“It is an issue that larger organisations will have to deal with. We need to make sure that working from home doesn’t lead to loneliness and isolation for some.”
When asked about the impact of COVID-19 on community engagement, a higher proportion of regional councils said they were negatively impacted (36%) compared to metro areas (23%).
Metro cities were more positively impacted by technology (85%) compared to regional councils (77%), the survey found. Chemello noted that COVID-19 had a positive impact on Moreton Bay’s ICT capabilities, as well as operational effectiveness and its cultural change program.
“I have often said that the organisation’s acceptance and expertise at managing a ‘working from home’ workforce was accelerated by at least five years during 2020,” he said.
“This is a big positive for our workforce and workplace flexibility as well as our management and leadership capabilities.”
The report highlighted different priorities for councils in different states and territories. For example, while financial sustainability was especially important for Victoria and Tasmania, community wellbeing was a key issue for New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia.
Digital changes were most important in the Northern Territory, while South Australia prioritised operational excellence.