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Building stronger communities: Insights from Glen Eira’s CEO Rebecca McKenzie

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Credit: Glen Eira City Council

In this interview, Rebecca McKenzie, CEO of Glen Eira City Council, reflects on her experience in local government. She discusses the importance of community engagement, managing relationships with elected councillors, and the essential role of values like respect, trust and public purpose in the local government sector.

To start us off, tell us a bit about you, your background, and how you ended up here today.

My career has been entirely in the public purpose sector—state and local government and the higher education sector—here in Australia and abroad. The opportunity to feel connected to place, people and the outcomes of what you do is compelling and addictive, so while I’ve toyed with the idea of other options over the years, I’ve never left.

Human Resource (HR) management is my ‘profession’ and I’ve held a range of senior executive roles in that space, including Director of HR for a Queensland Government department, a university in Dublin, and a council in the UK.  For the last 15 years, I’ve been in general management roles back here in Australia, including more than 11 years as a local government Chief Executive Officer. So while I still have a strong people focus and HR leaning, I’m very rusty in terms of my contemporary understanding of Industrial Relations (IR) law. Please don’t ask me to lead the next Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) negotiations!

I came to Glen Eira in 2016. It’s been such a good fit for me, I’ve broken my own rule and stayed in the role longer than the usual five to seven years. I’m still energised by the challenges and have a number of priorities I want to see through to a conclusion. I’ve also started to take on some board roles and am the current Chair of Zoos Victoria – they’re a world-leading, zoos-based conservation organisation and I really enjoy chairing their board.

As Glen Eira’s four-year plan reaches its conclusion, what outcomes and lessons has Glen Eira gathered along the way?

I don’t think we can underestimate the impact that the long tail of COVID has had on this term of Council and our capacity—both financially and in terms of organisational and personal resilience.

By the same token, we’ve never engaged with our community with such breadth and depth. While many councils engage on projects and budgets, we have recently taken to involving our community along the way to inform all of our biggest decisions, engaging in a way that allows us to understand their priorities for the future, the services and infrastructure they value most, and how we can confront some of the challenges ahead of us together.

At the same time, we’ve made some difficult decisions in the face of significant opposition, including a decision to exit direct service provision of early learning centres. But through it all, we’ve upheld our commitment to being frank and honest with our community about our challenges and the tough decisions elected Councillors need to make as community leaders.

By the end of June, we’ll have spent over $23m over the last four years on properties to convert into new public open space. As the municipality with the least amount of open space per person in metropolitan Melbourne, this was understandably our Council’s number one priority when they commenced their term, and we’ve seen a huge amount of progress since.

Improving and enhancing community infrastructure has also been a priority. We’re well progressed in delivering our largest-ever capital works project, the redevelopment of the Carnegie Memorial Swim Centre, and I’m pleased to say we’ve just been awarded a 6-Star Green Star rating, reflecting our commitment to sustainable builds.

Through it all, we are very proud that our staff engagement has remained top decile when compared to relevant benchmarks both public and private, and our community satisfaction levels have also remained well above the state average. I am very proud to say that 95% of Glen Eira residents say the quality of life here is good or very good.

What opportunities and barriers does Glen Eira face?

2024 is an election year and with that comes the beginning of a new Council cycle. That’s always a great time to take stock, re-focus and re-energise around a sharpened focus on our Community Vision. We’ve spent a lot of time engaging with the community to understand what their priorities are, so that’s a good starting point for us to take to the new Councillor group and work through their priorities. The themes we are hearing are pretty consistent with what you would expect – continue to invest in frontline services, make sure that there is a safety net of support for our more vulnerable, and continue to work to maintain the strong amenity and quality of life that our community currently enjoys.

Financial sustainability will always feature as a challenge or barrier in Glen Eira, especially in an environment of rate capping, cost shifting, inflation and changing community expectations. We’ve taken a multi-pronged approach to this – talking to our community, advocating to other levels of government, and looking inward at where we can best drive our existing resources or make savings to pay for what the community values most.

We declared a climate emergency in 2020 and set some pretty ambitious targets for emissions reduction, both for our organisation and for the wider community. We’ve made great progress, but we know that reducing emissions reduction in the community is going to require persistence. Like all councils, we also have to be responsive to the changing legislative and regulatory environment in which we work.

In managing the relationship with elected Councillors, what key wisdoms have served you well?

It’s a privilege to be a local government CEO. I can honestly say I really love my role. There is rarely a day that I don’t face the many challenges enthusiastically – and that includes working with our elected Councillors.

I think to manage the relationship successfully you need to have a high level of mutual respect and that includes respect for the different role that we each play in making the system of local governance work. When the CEO tries to play Councillor or vice versa, that’s where problems arise. Mutual respect is underpinned by trust, open communication, reliability and follow-through. You need to be prepared to not sweat the small stuff, seek to find a positive way through a reasonable request whenever possible, and be firm, fair and consistent when you need to say no.

The CEO always has a special relationship with the elected Mayor. You need to be a trusted advisor and be as invested in their success, and that of the Council, as you are in your own.  At the same time, you need to manage a positive relationship with every other elected Councillor one to one. They all have a legitimate role to play and while there may be factions and voting blocks, your role is to ensure that the business of the Council can be conducted effectively and not get caught up in the politics.

What leadership qualities have guided your career in local government?

I’ve always been a values-based leader. It probably comes from my HR background. I invest in relationships, in building culture, and in creating the environment and organisational systems that enable others to achieve their best.  We are essentially a people business and rely on the efforts of our entire workforce to be able to deliver for our community. We compete with other councils for talent so our positive and inclusive culture is one of our unique selling points.

A strong sense of public purpose and belief in the value of local government keeps you grounded. There’s no place for ego-driven leaders in this sector. But by the same token, you need to be prepared to make difficult decisions every day and be held accountable for them. To do that, you need a strong moral compass, and to consider the many competing ethical considerations of each decision you make or support your elected Council to make.

Finally, I think as a local government leader you also need to be pragmatic and resourceful. There will never be enough money, time, or autonomy to deliver everything to the level or standard that might be desired by the community in an ideal world. And community expectations are constantly changing – so you need to stay in touch with emerging issues and shifting priorities.

You need to constantly balance ambition with the ability to deliver and make judgements about what is going to achieve the best outcome for the majority of the people. As an officer working within this system, you need to recognise that sometimes, despite your best professional advice, the elected Councillors will decide otherwise, and that’s democracy in action.

Finally, what advice would you give to those starting their careers in local government or interested in working in local government?

Do it! It’s a wonderfully rewarding place to work if you like variety and meaningful work. No matter what your profession or interest is if you have the right qualities and a positive attitude, you can have a successful career in local government. If you’re just out of university, or early in your career, and don’t have much experience, consider taking a role in a Council’s customer service centre. You’ll learn a lot, have access to great training and professional development, and you can then use that experience to transfer into one of literally hundreds of different roles across the business. At Glen Eira, we’ve had many Customer Experience Agents over the years transfer to different roles, from the frontline to our more corporate teams.



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