The City of Melbourne is no ordinary local council. Even the proverbial collecting of the rubbish bins is slightly unusual.
“We’re looking a lot at smart infrastructure, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous,” reveals council CEO Ben Rimmer.
“At the ridiculous end, rubbish bins with sensors in them that tell you when they’re full means we can get more utilisation out of the contractors’ rubbish trucks and means we have fewer overflowing bins and cheaper operating costs for the service.”
The more prosaic aspects of running a council aside, there’s a lot of continuity between his current job and previous roles in the state and Commonwealth bureaucracies, he says. City of Melbourne — which covers 17 postcodes at the city’s heart — is big, growing and innovative. It accounts for 30% of the state’s economic output and its population is booming.
Although some people “look down their nose a bit at local government”, in the week before the former myGov lead spoke to The Mandarin he’d looked at issues to do with climate change, transport infrastructure, early childhood development, finance, community engagement and digital.
Lifting Melbourne’s metabolic rate
Rimmer says he’s has put in a lot of work to make the organisation — with an annual budget of around $600 million and a staff of 1500 — more responsive in the 12 months since he’s started.
In a capability review commissioned as soon as he came into office — a model borrowed from his previous experience on the expert panel of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade capability review — stakeholders complained of “silos, inconsistent policy advice, slow processes and said that finding the right person to talk to could be difficult”.
The review recommended lifting the “metabolic rate” of the organisation. The council’s response was to consult with staff and come up with a plan to fix the problems raised in the report. After implementing a range of changes, Rimmer wouldn’t characterise City of Melbourne as slow any more. “If anything I might get some upwards feedback about trying to push really hard,” he said.
“We’re thinking about what kinds of advice and issues the next council will have to grapple with and the council beyond that. We’re making sure we’re building the capability to support that, and the kind of organisational culture that’s necessary to support all of the above.”
He’s also a member of the Male Champions of Change Program, and notes “there’s been a lot of work around flexibility, parental leave, inclusive leadership, what it takes to be a leader of an inclusive and diverse and responsive organisation.
“We’ve started that journey,” he said, before conceding, “individually or collectively we’ve still got a fair way to go.”
Bringing a customer focus
One focus has been on making life easier for citizens who need to interact with the council — whether that be in planning disputes or the simple act of changing one’s address.
“Broadly you’d call it making the place more customer-centric, but everything from digital through to even just the way we answer phones in our contact centre, through to the way we handle complaints, the way we manage events,” he explained.
Rimmer hired Melbourne’s first chief digital officer, Michelle Fitzgerald, to head up its new Smart City Office. The first thing they’re working on is digitising services and moving paper forms online.“You also need to think about it from the perspective of the kitchen table, the conversations that a family has with each other …”
A big part of improving policy and delivery — which he believes are too often considered in isolation from one another, “a false distinction” — is engaging with citizens directly. He takes workforce participation as an illustrative example.
“There’s all kinds of very important, erudite debate about effective marginal tax rates and incentives and what have you — but actually you also need to think about it from the perspective of the kitchen table, the conversations that a family has with each other about who’s working and how much and how you influence that,” he said.
“If you think about it from that perspective you get completely different insights. In some cases you may get an insight that shows that all the policy wonks are talking about is completely meaningless to the family making the decision. In some cases you don’t.”
While City of Melbourne was already known for its forward-thinking use of people’s panels in 2014 to come up with budget priorities for the city, Rimmer reveals they’re planning another for the middle of the year as part of the update of the Future Melbourne Plan, a blueprint for what the city will look like a decade ahead.
“I find that kind of engagement approach very valuable,” he said. “It doesn’t solve every problem — you need to pick the right community engagement technique for the right problem — but it gives you a very different perspective on things.
“It allows you to say with some credibility and authority: this is where the community are up to.”
Part one of The Mandarin‘s interview with Ben Rimmer on leadership, federalism and myGov was published last week