Australia

“Local government is the best job that you can have” – Jane Stroud, CEO of Kiama Municipal Council

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Jane Stroud, CEO Kiama Council. Credit@KiamaCouncil

Ever wondered how a council CEO navigates the ever-changing local government landscape in Australia?

Asking ourselves the same question, Thomas and Hannah from LGIU Australia spoke with Kiama Council CEO Jane Stroud about her extensive career in local government as well as the future of Kiama Municipal Council (KMC).

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

I joined local government in my 20’s starting my career in town planning at a Council in Queensland on the Sunshine Coast. Over time I have held a variety of management and senior roles, from community and customer services, strategy, development assessment and innovation. I have never been afraid to accept a new challenging role and to move disciplines during my time in local government.

I have a tertiary background in both arts and science so working in the public service allows me the chance to combine my knowledge base and work across lots of different disciplines. I have always been passionate about enabling communities and creating great spaces and places for people to live in and work from. Local government has given me the chance to do exactly that in large complex city environments, and rural and regional communities.

A few years ago, I wanted to push my knowledge beyond Queensland local government and to learn what other state’s approaches were, so I pursued an opportunity to become Kiama Municipal Council’s CEO, re-settling my young family on the NSW South Coast. The CEO role at KMC is very challenging but also rewarding.

Kiama Council is quite a unique local government in NSW, as we run two large and distinct businesses, aged care services and municipal services. About 60% of my workforce is employed in the aged care industry and Council owns and operates a 134-bed residential aged care facility, 264 independent living units housed in two large retirement villages, community transport and homecare support services for over 700 clients in the Illawarra region. We do all that on top of running a local government that delivers more than 100 different types of services to the community every year – whether that is planning, parks, waste, leisure centres, libraries or economic development.

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Why have you stayed in local government for so long?

I love the challenge of working in such a diverse and complex sector. It’s exhilarating to see communities I have worked on as town plans, become thriving towns and communities, or the infrastructure you steadily plan, become a reality. When you work in local government you can see, in real time, the difference you make to people’s lives and your impact on whole towns and cities. The sector is also full of talented and committed public servants and over the years I have learnt from some of the best. Being able to keep learning, keep contributing and making a difference has kept me interested in the sector.

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

Financial sustainability is critical for all of us in local government. For Kiama Council, addressing this issue is pivotal to our future. The organisation is addressing some deep-seated financial issues, which is proving hard but very necessary. Our local government depends on financial stability being achieved in the next two years, so it is understandably my number one priority.

Second to this is, is that, in this current term of office, our Councillors have made the historic decision to divest of a large portion of our aged care services. This will mean redefining what our local government model is, and rebuilding our organisation, post the divestment of our substantive aged care business. This historic decision gives us an opportunity to transform our business after 40 years of running aged care services, and to return to a dedicated focus on the fundamentals and essentials of being a local government. It also gives us a chance to become the best version of a local government for our community, where we are spending within our means and using our resources (human and financial) wisely. I am excited by this change – but moving through the divestment process will take time, hard work and effort. Our workforce performance and corporate culture need to be front of centre of this change and will require dedicated team and individual effort.

Thirdly, with a state and federal priority of housing growth, and strong local demand, managing growth is a key priority that we need to get right, for today’s community, but also for the next generation. Our community needs to make sure we too are shouldering our responsibility for careful growth that helps our key workers, like teachers, nurses and childcare workers remain living in our area. We are blessed with a beautiful and desirable part of Australia to live, with amazing beaches, rolling green hills and a seaside and/or country-village atmosphere, but we can not live in a bubble or pull up the draw bridge to our special towns. People need to be able to both live and work here. Careful and considered planning, and supporting infrastructure is going to be critical to our community’s growth. That will be a hard conversation with our residents but it’s one that we must not ignore or avoid.

Delivering upon these three priorities, what barriers and opportunities does Kiama face?

There’s a huge opportunity for Kiama to harness what it does really well, which is tourism and hospitality – our biggest employers. Balancing the needs of locals of visitors is always a challenge for seaside communities in terms of service provision. Our local businesses need to be supported to grow and remain here, but we also need more employment land and areas for businesses to expand – not just tourist-driven experiences. Council will need to think carefully and plan for good quality employment land, alongside residential land.

In terms of the organisation and workforce, everyone in local government is experiencing recruitment challenges, especially in specialist and expert roles, and workforce management is a real daily battle for us. We are not alone in this in the post-COVID era. Pay rates, housing affordability and liveability are all factors for decision-making when it comes to people choosing where to work and our challenge is that, as the smallest Council in the Illawarra, competing with our neighbours for talent pool can be hard. So the business needs to offer other attractors: better culture, more flexible working arrangements or opportunities for training and development. Building a talented workforce and supporting them as they help us meet these challenges will be critical to our success.

Finally, I think good governance and leadership locally are vital and the most important part of responding to these challenges. The partnership between the elected representatives and the organisation needs to be healthy, constructive, respectful and strong. It will take solid teamwork to address and solve our problems and there is little room for parochialism or individual egos. A problem shared is always sooner solved and good collective effort will help remove our barriers to achieving these priorities.

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At a state level, how can NSW encourage housing deliverability?

The barrier here at its heart is a conversation between all levels of government and their communities about the reluctance of community growth. That conversation needs to not centre on blame, but instead to shift focus and become a constructive one about where should land be released, what should housing developments look like to match local ideals, and how we collaborate to deliver sustainable development that is supported by well-sequenced infrastructure, like schools and hospitals and sportsfields. There are many ingredients that go into creating good communities and I think the conversation depth can be improved by every level of government thinking holistically about housing and working together.

In NSW in particular the planning system needs to be simplified and less interventionist. There are far too many layers of decision-making, confusion over state and local responsibility and the timeframes for referrals are too long.

Better partnerships need to be allowed to be established between the private sector and government to deliver housing. To me, the concept of facilitation needs to become central to the discussion. Good planning careers and really good land use plans are fundamentally built on the art of facilitation, collaboration and compromise. That’s what is needed in the state and the nation to address housing issues. We all need to be prepared to be part of the solution, as housing is a human right and need, which right now is going unmet and is sadly unachievable for too many people.

Good state planning will be needed, with clear and honest investment decisions captured in infrastructure plans, which match up to housing targets. There is no point in having targets without well-thought-out sequenced infrastructure plans which plainly spell out to the community the delivery timelines for state deliverables like highways, roads, train lines, educational services, health services and water and sewerage plants. That will require investment, clarity, and coordination between departments. Not an easy task, but a critical one.

Lastly, we simply need more planners and faster timeframes for assessment. Standardising some aspects of plans, regulations etc. will help developers more easily navigate different Local Government Areas (LGAs) and help planners process quickly. Being a planner is a brilliant job, but it can also be hard; sometimes recommendations are overturned by Councillors, or objected to by the community. In a small town planners and bureaucrats will face criticism and sometimes receive negative personal attacks via social media or on the streets. That needs to stop. We all need to understand that workers have a role to play, but doing their job is not cause for poor behaviour.

Shared agendas: Advancing commonwealth local government cooperation

Having been in a senior local government role for over a decade, what has surprised or challenged you the most?’

Every day is a surprise in local government. You never really know what’s going to come across your desk, and with every meeting you have, the topic of conversation can change from sewerage issues to sporting needs, to a development problem or lifeguard services. I love the mental gymnastics that working in local government brings you.

I am always pleasantly surprised at how generous and caring many professionals in the industry are, there is always someone to learn from and it’s greatly appreciated.

Another surprise I often experience is how invested the community is in its local government. In Kiama, we are really fortunate to have a well-educated and really interested citizen group who love what we do, are passionate about what we do, and have always had strong views about what we do. Everyone has a view on what we are doing well, and what we are doing not well and I appreciate that.

I am always challenged by trying to meet everyone’s needs. No community ever asks for less service or reductions in services from their local government, usually everyone wants more. Balancing the books, delivering what we must, and what we can, is always a high-wire act.

What advice would you give to other Chief Executives and those working with elected representatives?

Councillors and bureaucrats (staff) are like two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other and you both need each other to strike the right balance. Respect, honesty and trust are the two-way street that creates the road ahead for working constructively with Councillors and the organisation.

There needs to be respect for each other’s roles and responsibilities and acknowledgement of the difference between the two. Councillors need to focus on the vision/strategy and policy of the organisation while the operations staff must be allowed to deliver on that vision through services and activities.

Like all relationships, it is never easy, and you will have good and challenging times, and maintaining healthy relationships takes work and commitment. Listening, being prepared to learn, and giving frank and fearless advice is always solid advice.

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

Do it! Local government is a great place to work.

If you are interested in diversity and complexity in business, and seeing real results in a community, local government is for you.

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