Craig Swift-McNair, GM of Woollahra Municipal Council – “there is no more complex business than a Council”


The view from one of Woollahra's parks. @ThomasLynch

Woollahra Municipal Council is a 12km squared local government area in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, in the state of New South Wales (NSW).

Responsible for implementing council decisions, strategic oversight, and the day-to-day operations and affairs of the council, the job of a General Manager is like no other.

To find out more about the role of Woollahra Municipal Council’s General Manager, Thomas and Merle from LGIU Australia spoke with Craig Swift-McNair about his background and experience in the sector, and his perspective on the challenges and opportunities as a Sydney Council.

Tell us a bit about you, your background, and how you ended up here.

I have been at Woollahra Council for three years, and before this, I was General Manager for six years at Port Macquarie Hastings Council. Prior to that, I held a range of management and Director roles across Greater Taree City Council and Port Macquarie Hastings Council, so in total, I have been in the local government sector now for 20 years, which is good and bad when you think about it.

My route into local government isn’t the most typical. I first joined local government in 2003 at Port Macquarie Hastings Council on a contract role as a Strategic Procurement Manager after many years in the private sector, where I worked in multi-national office product businesses, through to start-up businesses in catering and events, and a technology company at one point!

If I had a couch to lie on, this could serve as a counselling session!

What are the top three outcomes you are hoping to achieve in the next two years?

Financial sustainability, digital transformation and organisational culture are my big three.

We have done a great deal of work in the last 24 months to get us to a much healthier financial position. Since the end of 2021, we have moved from having a AUD$4m deficit into nearly a million-dollar surplus this year, which is the result of some really difficult discussions and actions along the way.

Moving into this position of financial consolidation brings new challenges as we look to build into the future, which is made even tougher given the ever-changing whims of the state government.

A second focus for us is digital transformation as we look to become a modern, efficient and effective council, with a particular focus on the area of customer and employee experience. We’ve got a long way to go to become a modern and efficient organisation, but this journey has begun.

A third aim is to improve how we work as an organisation with our people. For me, it’s all about the longer-term success and with our staff, it is about being able to not just focus on the day-to-day tasks that need to be done, but the ability to have conversations about the whole person. Over the last two and a half years, we have been focusing on providing leadership skills to our management and executive team and now we have a range of other teams going through a similar process.

Finally (and this applies to all NSW councils), we are preparing for the local government elections in September 2024 and this brings with it a whole heap of preparation and induction planning. For us, a particular focus is on preparing those candidates who get elected (and who might know little about council functions) to be ready one or two weeks after the election for meetings where they might be making multi-million dollar decisions.

What was your experience of working in local government during the pandemic, and how do you ensure the lessons learned shape Woollahra Council going forward? 

As local government always does, we got on with our work during the pandemic and we were delivering for the community in the safest possible manner that we could. Our community has high expectations of what council should be delivering and those demands were still there during the pandemic.

My experience during the pandemic was good and bad all rolled into one. I would certainly never advocate anyone to start a GM (General Manager) role in a new city during a pandemic. From a drawn-out interview process to only being able to meet people over Zoom for the first few months, it was not an ideal situation for a new GM.

But on the bright side, I developed early relationships with the operational staff, because they were still out there in the community every day (albeit with different procedures) and I was out and about at our depots or in the field meeting them all.

Finally, the other key lesson was about culture. The pandemic taught us how important human connection is. It’s one thing to just hand out instructions every day, but it is another to show leadership and consider how everyone is actually coping. We went through various lockdowns of course, and it was really important for our managers and leaders to continue to be in contact with their staff, wherever they were working.

What are the key opportunities and challenges for Woollahra Council? 

One of the key challenges is population density. We are one of the most highly densified LGA’s in the Sydney metro area, with a population of 53,487 and a population density of 4,363 persons per square km.

This means that there are heightened development issues that are pretty intense, and it is a complex beast to work through, which takes up a lot of resources. Also, we are on a peninsula with three roads in and three roads out (all under state control) and just about every person who can have a car has one, so getting from A to B is becoming more and more challenging and is one of the key complaints we deal with on an ongoing basis.

Continuing to work with the state government on financial sustainability presents both an opportunity and a challenge. A financial model review for local government appears to be on its way and we welcome that with open arms because it will be key to getting some of the major issues on the table that impact our financial sustainability. One hopes that this review will ultimately bring real change, but if nothing else, it will establish a broader conversation and understanding within the state government of the challenges local government is facing financially.

However, the state government still has an interesting habit of throwing new financial challenges at councils and that approach needs to end, as does the us and them approach between both levels of government.

Making the case for alternate approaches to rate-pegging/capping

Related to this, how do you think state and federal governments can support local governments in delivering infrastructure? 

There is no silver bullet to this issue. As noted earlier, we are a highly densified LGA limited by the fact we are on a peninsula, with limited public transport. Since our roads are not getting any wider, there needs to be a far better public transport service across our LGA and this sits with the state government.

It is worth noting that the new federal government appears to be much more open to working with local government than previously, but the bottom line is that we need more funding to local government from other levels of government, in addition to all of us in local government continuing to drive efficiencies and cost savings where possible.

State-level strategies around appropriate housing solutions are needed, but the current approach of pushing housing targets onto councils and then assuming that through some miracle, the infrastructure required to support an increased population will be there is nonsensical. This is where there needs to be an all-levels-of-government approach to this issue, as local government simply does not have the revenue to make a lot of this happen.

Another key challenge is the constant politicisation of which level of government is responsible for what – this has just got to stop. Let’s have an adult conversation around the table about what each level of government is able to do (or not) and then come up with some collective solutions to these issues. On this point, it is important for the other levels of government to realise that each local government area has slightly different issues and it is rare for a one-size-fits-all solution to work for all.

This brings me to grant funding and the fact that it is not necessarily a solution to fixing the financial model for local government. Grant funding capital projects is on the one hand fine, but on the other hand, there is never any funding for the maintenance of this new asset (or liability, depending on how you view it), and the local council rarely has the funding/revenue to maintain this asset adequately for the next 100 years – thereby potentially creating more financial stresses for the council.

What is one key piece of advice for those interested, or starting off, in a local government career?

Just joining a council would be my advice. I have been lucky to work in both the private and public sectors, and I can tell you that there is no more complex business than a council. There is great diversity in what you can do, and there really never is a dull moment, good, bad or otherwise.

But most people do not have any concept of what a council does, and that is a real image problem for the local government sector. We need to push the flexibility that local government offers and whilst a job for life is no longer commonplace, you can have a range of careers within one organisation or local government sector because what we do is so diverse.

Some years back we mapped out all of the things a council does and when you look at it, from the minute you get out of bed and turn on the tap, to the minute you drive to and from work on a local road, or walk on a footpath, you have used council services or facilities – but that is not widely enough promoted by us.

Finally, you have been at a senior level in local government since 2003. During this time, what has surprised you, and what challenged you?

It still surprises me how long it takes to get something done in local government – but it is something many of us continue to work on.

Often, the amount of legislation we work under adds complexity at every turn, often for all the right reasons of course, but nonetheless, it can take years to get a project off the ground. So, my advice is to celebrate whenever you complete projects or initiatives.

I’m also still challenged and surprised by how often our organisations are distracted by the “squeaky wheel”. You can do incredibly good and comprehensive community engagement, but people opposed to whatever the issue might be, often continue to push misinformation that can truly be a drain on resources. There is no doubt that everyone should have a voice, but to get to the 11th hour of a project and still have a small number of people trying to impact a decision made by the elected body, that is supported by the majority of the community, often distracts from all the good work being done.

Finally, the growing abuse councillors receive is something which simply has to be tackled. As a General Manager, I am often reminding staff to be kind and generous, but sadly, this is not necessarily reflected in some parts of the community. How can we ever hope to attract future councillors given this rising trend in abuse? At the end of the day, councillors are making decisions in the best interests of the broader community and as I often say to detractors, if you are so enraged by what is taking place run for public office yourself.

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