Governments really want to work well for local communities. Aside from the political pay-off for those who need local support to get elected, the local level is often where the rubber hits the road in terms of community wellbeing and social outcomes.
So why do governments - especially national governments - find it hard to deliver at the local level?
Place-based initiatives. Collective action. Social innovation. Community-led change. Call it what you will, working well with local communities is something all governments want to do.
We've all seen the negative examples: infrastructure in the wrong location; funding directed to government's priorities rather than local needs; funding for some local groups while others just as deserving miss out; services that are not adequately funded to do what the local community needs.
There are many reasons governments struggle in this way. A key one is that governments and senior public servants misunderstand the task. They use the wrong tools for the job, making matters worse for communities that are already burdened with many challenges.
Certainly, government can help make a difference through the use of its convening power and its funding. An example that we have written on before is Working on Country (now called the Indigenous Ranger Program), providing Commonwealth funding for local Indigenous community groups to care for country. It was scaled up from a small number of locally-designed projects by the Howard government and expanded under subsequent governments. It funds environmental work at full award salaries, and some communities partner with academics, and some members go on to set up their own businesses. It is one of the most successful Indigenous programs in Australia.
Another example is the Council of Australian Governments trial in Murdi Paaki in far west NSW (2003-07). It was built on community priorities, with State and Commonwealth governments doing what communities saw as their priorities, whether it was air conditioning in homes, aged care provision, cemetery restoration, or projects to support out of school young people. It was recognised by the Audit Office and an evaluation as one of the most successful trials with significant improvements in areas such as student literacy, health and crime rates.
These successes were built on four key factors: strong local leadership; respectful listening by all parties ("stop talking and start listening" was the first advice from Murdi Paaki communities to the COAG team); the government bureaucrats "leaving their ... ego at the door"; and genuine negotiation at the local level. This required local public servants with real authority, and a heavy emphasis on Canberra operating as a facilitator and enabler, rather than as a director of program action.
So why are such examples disappointingly rare? Why does government struggle to support and expend such initiatives, and what can government do to improve its "place-based" work?
The first mistake that is often made is to start with the assumption that someone sitting in Canberra (or some other centre of power) knows exactly what the problem is and how it can be fixed. This might be termed the fallacy of technical competence: "I am really good at my job here in the centre of power, so I must therefore be very good at getting things done elsewhere." The problem is, Australia is a big country with many varied communities facing many different challenges. Even the most elegantly designed national program - if it is founded on the fallacy of technical competence - is going to struggle to respond to all local needs.
Another mistake is to assume that engaging with the local community means a series of well-meaning "consultations" and then government deciding what the problem is and how it is going to be fixed. Many communities have homegrown leaders and facilitators who are able to drive local action. They often do so despite what governments want, say or do. Such people are social entrepreneurs. They master the art of telling government officials what they want to hear so as to qualify for a grant or some other assistance, and then going ahead and doing what is really needed, stretching as far as possible the bounds of the grant terms to address the real need. In the process, of course, they expend huge amounts of effort in jumping through the myriad hoops government puts before them, often at real and lasting cost to the community and its leaders. And the public servants don't get a lot of joy out of it either!
So what can governments - especially public servants - do to change this pattern of failure or at best partial success in engaging with local communities? We have a few ideas.
First, governments - especially senior public servants - need to develop some humility. This is not easy when you are among the elites here in Canberra, where the job is all about seeing a problem, figuring out how to fix it, and getting in there and fixing it. When it comes to place-based initiatives, the seat of government is just about the worst place from which to understand a local community's issues and to deliver solutions.
Second, authority and resources need to be put where they are most needed. This means ensuring there are capable locally-based public servants with the power to make decisions and the resources to follow through on those decisions. There are obvious risks that need to be managed, including when staff with strong local links have undeclared conflicts of interest. Transparency and probity about such concerns matter both for "horizontal" relationships with local partners and for "vertical" accountability up the bureaucratic hierarchy.
Regular use of communication technologies such as videoconferencing can help in active accountability and communication both up the line to Canberra and horizontally with the local community, and with other communities that might be dealing with similar issues.
Third, and underpinning the other two, the whole architecture of performance management and accountability needs to be redesigned. This might seem a rather arcane point, but it is crucial to success in these initiatives. The standard approach is for government to define what outcome is needed and what actions will deliver it, identify the resources required and then take the required actions to deliver the defined outcomes. As we've already discussed, it is not easy - if it is possible at all - to be so definitive in place-based work, especially from the national capital.
What all this requires is a shift in the goals and methods of public servants, so they help local communities define their goals and help them find the best ways to achieve them. It is all about using the tools of government to give agency to the community, not take it away.
Seen in this way, what constitutes success for government as a local partner is all about processes, resourcing, data and relationships. The Department of Social Services is establishing a National Centre for Place-based Collaboration (the Nexus Centre). While it is in early development, this initiative might work where previous efforts have struggled, if those responsible for it can learn some of the hard lessons of prior efforts.
None of this is easy. It takes a great deal of self-awareness and humility. It requires retooling public servants and retraining them, and rewarding very different behaviours. It means politicians (and accountability agencies such as the Audit Office) changing what they expect from the public service when they are working in this way.
But if all politics are local, then so too are many of the solutions to local communities' problems. If government - especially the Commonwealth government - is going to be effective, it needs to change the ways in which public servants operate. The measure of success will be the degree to which they help the community exercise its agency to meet its needs.
We've made it a whole lot easier for you to have your say. Our new comment platform requires only one log-in to access articles and to join the discussion on The Canberra Times website. Find out how to register so you can enjoy civil, friendly and engaging discussions. See our moderation policy here.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.