I indicated in my previous post on the release of the NSW Independent Local Government Review Panel’s final report Revitalising Local Government that I intended to provide a summary of the report’s key findings and recommendations, especially in relation to regional collaboration.
Given the scope of the report I’ve decided to do this over several posts, kicking off with an overview of section 11 which deals with the Panel’s recommendations for the creation of new joint regional organisations. This alone will involve two posts; in the first I will outline the Panel’s proposals to create these new organisations and their structure, governance arrangements and roles.
In the second I will discuss some specific aspects of the proposed organisations such as their role in inter-government relations and strategic planning, the implications for the metropolitan region and make some overall comments about the Panel’s proposals.
At this point I need to point out that I was commissioned by the Panel to prepare a paper on options to enhance regional collaboration amongst councils and in particular the role of Regional Organisations of Councils (ROCs – see Volume 2 of the report’s supporting documents).
As the Panel’s report notes, my research concluded that while ROCs have played a key role in regional cooperation over many years, their performance has been patchy and uneven, especially in the delivery of shared services. The Panel also highlighted the conclusions of my report that this variation reflected a range of factors including large variations in size, number and wealth of participating councils as well as in the level of commitment and institutional leadership. Other factors include legal limitations on regional tendering and on the ability of councils to form companies to deliver services regionally.
While the Panel received many submissions arguing that ROCs should continue as the primary vehicle for regional cooperation, it concluded that their “embedded culture” of volunteerism combined with the variability in their scope of operations and effectiveness prevented them from having an effective role, particularly in supporting local government to be a “reliable and capable partner of state agencies”.
The Panel has therefore recommended the formation of completely new regional entities, called “Joint Organisations”, to replace both existing ROCs and County Councils. This approach draws on the Council of Mayors option I proposed in my report to the Panel and more directly on the Panel’s proposal for “new look” County Councils outlined in its earlier Future Directions report.
The Panel has acknowledged that the previous County Council model had raised a number of concerns. In fact this model, which contained a detailed structure based on specific regional councils being given a leadership role within each County Council, was criticised as being unnecessarily prescriptive and inflexible when it was released. The use of the existing County Council legal framework was also perceived to be inappropriate.
The Panel has substantially reworked the model but has retained the core concept of statutory regional entities based on specified geographic areas and with specified functions, operations and governance arrangements. The Local Government Act would be amended to replace the existing provisions for County Councils with new provisions to enable the establishment and operation of the new Joint Organisations, along with mechanisms to transition the existing County Councils to the new structures.
In calling the new structures “Joint Organisations” (JOs) the Panel has also recognised the historical “baggage” that goes with the term “County Council”, not to mention many of the alternative names. Joint Organisations has been chosen as a “deliberately neutral” “generic descriptor”, with groups of councils free to call their JO whatever they like. The Panel has also decided not to propose uniform structures and processes, provided that there is a consistent overall framework. And while the JOs would effectively replace ROCs as well as County Councils, groups of councils would still be able to maintain ROCs and other cooperative arrangements for activities “not within the remit of their JO” or to establish cooperation across JO boundaries.
Membership of JOs would be mandatory and each JO would be established by a separate proclamation to be negotiated by the councils and with the Minister. The JO would comprise the mayor of each member council, but could involve additional council representatives and observers/advisers from outside local government. Councils would own and resource the JOs in a similar way to ROCs, though the Panel has floated the controversial idea of general-purpose federal Financial Assistance Grants being an additional resource.
JO staffing would be lean: there would be a Regional General Manager, an administrative team and a small group of professional staff, possibly on secondment from member councils.
Each JO would prepare a 10 year strategic business plan and 4-year delivery program which would be endorsed by member councils. The scope of shared services would be detailed in a proclamation for each JO and but all JOs would undertake core functions including strategic regional and sub-regional planning, inter-government relations and regional advocacy, strategic procurement, information and technical exchanges between member councils, road network planning and collaboration with State and federal agencies in infrastructure and service provision.
The JOs would also take over the activities of existing County Councils and undertake any other joint activities specified in the proclamation, such as major infrastructure projects, regional waste and environmental management, regional economic development, regional library services and a range of corporate services or ‘back office’ functions. Once the scope of shared services has been outlined detailed in the proclamation (including which councils are involved in each activity), there would be no opting out for at least the life of the strategic business plan.
The Panel has identified that one critical function of the JOs would be to provide a “new platform” for State-local cooperation. I will return to this theme in my next post.