Local government: Australia's real economic workhorse?

By Roberta Ryan & Melissa Gibbs

January 29, 2015

Local government is an Australian powerhouse, punching above its weight in terms of its contribution to the nation’s economy and social fabric, particularly in regional, rural and remote Australia.

The Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government — based at the University of Technology, Sydney — undertook a major research project to compile Australia’s most extensive data set of the nation’s local government workforce. The purpose of the profile is to support the implementation of the National Local Government Workforce Strategy, prepared for ACELG by Local Government Managers Australia.

The first thing that needs to be said is that local government is a big business. Australia’s 556 local governments employ nearly 200,000 people in a diverse range of roles across the country. Together, Australia’s local governments spend more than $30 billion annually.

Rural and remote Australia

In a number of rural and remote local government areas across Australia, local government is either the top, or one of the top, employers. In these places, local government acts as a primary economic driver through its role at times as the only level of government providing essential day-to-day health, education, transport and community services.

The flow on effect from local government employment is significant. It offers opportunities for ongoing training and career development. It enables people and their families to stay being part of the community and contributing to the local economy.

Indigenous employment

It’s in indigenous employment where more good news about local government employment can be found.

More than 4.5% of the local government workforce across Australia is indigenous. The figure surpasses both state and territory governments (2%), the federal government (1.5%), and the private sector (1.3%). Nationally, local government has exceeded the Council of Australian Governments public sector indigenous employment target of 2.6%.

It’s fair to say, however, these figures need to be read with care. Indigenous employment is a very complex issue and it’s important to look behind the figures. The main issue is: are we talking about sustainable careers or short-term jobs?

Proportion of local government indigenous employees and indigenous adult population by state (Source: ACELG, based on ABS 2011 Census of Population and Housing)
Proportion of local government indigenous employees and indigenous adult population by state (Source: ACELG, based on ABS 2011 Census of Population and Housing)

Gender balance

Although a majority of local government employees around the country are men (54%), there are differences in gender distribution in the states and territories and within the diverse occupations local government employs.

About one third of all councillors (30%) and one quarter of mayors (23%) are women. The most interesting thing here is that the proportion of women being elected to these positions is about equal to the proportion being nominated.

This strongly suggests that, when they stand for local government election, women are successful and the real barrier is getting more women to stand in the first place. We need to know why women aren’t putting themselves forward for election and we have a long way to go before we achieve gender equity among elected members.

STATE % male % female % male % female
NSW 52.6% 47.4% 60.2% 39.8%
WA 47.9% 52.1% 51.3% 48.7%
Victoria 37.3% 62.7% 39.1% 60.9%
Northern Territory 61.1% 38.9% 56.1% 43.9%
Queensland 61.0% 39.0% 60.8% 39.2%
South Australia 53.5% 46.5% 55.6% 44.4%
Tasmania 52.2% 47.8% 59.2% 40.8%

An ageing workforce

One of the other big issues is the fact that the local government workforce is ageing and, on average, is older compared with other government and industry sectors.

As a large number of workers approach retirement at the same time, there are implications for local government in the areas of knowledge retention, recruitment and replacement.

According to the last Australian Bureau of Statistics census, 37% of the local government workforce is aged 50 years or over, compared to the Australian labour force average of 29%. Correspondingly, the proportion of local government employees aged less than 35 years is much lower than the Australian average. 

So what now?

The study has demonstrated the significance of local government to Australia’s economic, environmental and social foundations, particularly in regional, rural and remote areas.

With the federalism debate upon us, there is no better time for the local government sector to step up, more assertively participate in the debate and seek the support needed for its workforce to have a stronger role in our federation, particularly as it is a key enabler of community well-being.

At the same time, local government needs to look internally. The biggest workforce challenges facing the sector are the ageing workforce, high levels of impending retirement, and male-dominated senior management ranks. A greater commitment to workforce planning is the key strategy that can help the sector respond to these issues.

A more strategic approach to training and development focussed on developing in-house middle management is critical. Similarly, developing the skills of current employees so they can move more flexibly between certain occupations is one solution to the skills shortages in some areas.

Better gender equity is a lever local government can pull. A large number of highly educated women are permeating middle management ranks — particularly in community service and corporate governance occupations. If supported with continued flexible work opportunities and career progression, these women will move into senior management roles.

There are promising signs that the sector could leverage its role as an economic driver to cement its position as a leader in community building, workforce diversity and gender equity — and there are already numerous examples of local governments doing just that.

Achieving these outcomes requires a commitment to change, a positive workforce culture, political will and good evidence.

A more comprehensive version of the ACELG report — Profile of the Local Government Workforce — will be released later this year.

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