How seven councils joined to digitally connect Queensland’s most remote areas

By Sarah Morgan

August 4, 2017

Encouraging young people to stay, finding new business opportunities and developing a strong plan to harness digital disruption are three challenges facing many local government bodies across Australia on a day-to-day basis.

Throw on top of that a remote geography that accounts for 22% of Queensland’s land, poor and expensive internet connectivity, a small niche tourist market, a growing skills gap and an industry base reliant on outside influences, and you have a real challenge on your hands.

This was the stark reality facing a group of seven Western Queensland Councils (Barcaldine Regional Council, Barcoo Shire Council, Blackall Tambo Regional Council, Boulia Shire Council, Diamantina Shire Council, Longreach Regional Council and Winton Shire Council).

“If you start in the wrong place, you will end up in the wrong place. It’s about real people with real concerns and real problems.”

Last year, the councils, under the Central Western Queensland Remote Area Planning and Development Board, decided they needed a plan of attack, which used digital disruption to their advantage. RAPAD is made up of a group of Central Western Councils who work together to pool their resources to ignite the economy of the whole region.

RAPAD engaged GWI (formerly Glentworth Consulting) to look at the challenges the region faced through extensive community consultation, to determine possible opportunities and what truly impacted the region and, importantly, its people.

Hitting the road

GWI held community roundtables, phone conferences, one-on-one chats with residents and key stakeholders, visited tourist drawcards to test the experience and even spoke with a number of people outside the region. No mean feat given the vastness of the region.  In fact, the project covered the largest sub-national area covered by a single digital plan.

Neil Makepeace, GWI’s CEO, said his team used the data and combined it with best practice, domestically and globally, to create the Smart Central Western Queensland: A Digitally Enabled Community Strategic Plan, which identified 11 projects and 42 recommendations.

“The key to this project was the time spent in engagement,” Makepeace said. “There is no substitute for getting out and about and talking to people.

“You can only make informed decisions if you have all the data and that comes from hitting the road and asking the right questions and listening to people. If you start in the wrong place, you will end up in the wrong place. It’s about real people with real concerns and real problems.”

Five key areas

The end goal is to make the region attractive for families and individuals to live a rich, fulfilling life and a place to build a successful business with the same levels of service experienced by those in more populated areas.

To accomplish this the finished plan works across five areas: transport, service retention and expansion (health, education and training and housing), technology, communication and the digital economy, sustainable industries and regional planning and capacity building.

“The plan focuses on the economic development of the region, using digital technology as an enabler,” he said. “It will allow the region to access the benefits at a lower cost, to ensure that a broader market can be reached and to enable better collaboration between the region, its councils, and its business sector.

“Every region has its own set of unique problems and challenges. Looking at digital transformation and how it impacts a region is not a standard process; no two communities are the same. Every space has a diverse history and own unique set of challenges.

“While this area doesn’t enjoy the level of connectivity that many in cities have, what they do have is the drive to find opportunities and future-proof their region,” he said. “This plan uses digital and non-digital tools to support those aspirations and overcome the challenges.”

Remote and prosperous

RAPAD CEO David Arnold said his personal goal is to see the area become one of the most digitally enabled and productive remote rural regions in the world.

“If you don’t have a large vision and plan, you just continue to poke around and implement piecemeal items. That just doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s our role to facilitate discussion and make sure we’ve got the right plan in place to create a strong digital economic environment that supports the communities we represent.

“I think it’s exciting to see our region taking the lead. We’re not rural, we’re remote, and when you are this remote it is vital to be innovative and resourceful. It’s core, well, to surviving. What came out of this process was that you can’t innovate unless you have the soft and hard infrastructure and that’s now our job to provide that and let them embrace and use that.”

Arnold said the team have already started actioning some of the recommendations.

“The key thing is to ensure this report doesn’t become a dust collector that just sits on the shelf looking pretty,” Arnold said. “It has to become a day-to-day plan. We’ve already started to put in place a number of the recommendations from the report. For example, we’re implementing the digital literacy programs and smart tourism strategy now through installing iBeacons.

“Some other, more complex, items will need more resources and consultation with key groups and partnering with state and federal government. The board is 100% committed to delivering this plan. Right this minute I’m putting together a budget plan and timeframe of when we can meet each recommendation.”

Digital bush: 10 actions for staying innovative and resourceful

  • Develop a Chief Digital Officer role for the region.
  • Publish, and continually update, a jobs map showing where jobs could be created if there were greater connectivity in the region.
  • Organise the first Regional Design Thinking Summit in Longreach.
  • Coordinate a media and brand campaign to give the area one voice and raise the regions profile.
  • Negotiate with LGAQ, major telecommunications companies and others to ensure that free community Wi-Fi is available in eight towns across the region.
  • Coordinate an agreement between councils to simplify the processes and waive application fees for food business licenses for businesses primarily focused on servicing the tourist market.
  • Work with a mapping software company to procure the rights for local historians and local indigenous leaders to use their maps to better explain the local history.
  • Invest in a single BigCommerce platform with a view to encourage businesses to invest in a digital shopfront themselves.
  • Coordinate with providers of digital literacy and digital commerce programs to ensure residents of the region have access to those programs.
  • Advocate for the use of data to increase digital productivity, differentiate product and create food-based tourism through regional and local events as well as through one-on-one advocacy.
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