As the local government sector changes, and is expected to do more with less, the need to advocate, convince, and connect with our communities, other levels of government, businesses and collaborators increases. Councils are forming more complex collaborations with other organisations, and relying more and more on efficiencies to get the job done. In a myriad of ways, this leads to a more sophisticated relationship with data. Why? Data informs decision-making, is essential in getting others on board with initiatives, and can be compelling when competing for scarce resources.
We need data – but the amount of data we are generating and gathering is growing at unprecedented rates. While knowledge is power, in the data age it’s the ability to organise, analyse, and tell the real story of the data that matters.
LG Professionals Australia partnered with .id, population and economic analysts to create the State of the Sector Report. As experts in place-based demographics, .id transform statistical data into a user-friendly information that allows users to better understand community places and the people who live there. .id's expertise in location-based information for geographic areas aligned to real-life community planning scenarios, enables local governments to benchmark information to relevant state and regional indicators and understand change over time.
The State of the Sector Report 2016-2017
The State of the Sector provides national and state overviews, with LGA specific case studies and examples, and considers wider trends in population, economic activity, housing and cultural diversity, highlighting what councils may need to do to ameliorate the impacts or take advantage of the opportunities.
The report contains links to .id’s local government area (LGA) specific database on economic and demographic indicators for every LGA in Australia.
In the words of .id's founder Ivan Motley, 'Confident decisions come from understanding complex information as a clear and persuasive narrative'. The State of the Sector Report enables local government professionals to get the big picture of where their local government fits in, and benefit from the analysis of the changing face of Australia's demographic and economic shifts as they impact local government. Better decisions are likely when councils understand the demographic changes.
The right data can also be a tool for community level engagement and advocacy; with local government budgets tight, councils need to balance the competing demands for resources, and shift resourcing priorities as the demographics change. Sharing data with the community enhances the likelihood decisions will be supported.
Interestingly, Jonathan Car-West, CEO of the UK’s Local Government Information Unit who spoke at our recent National Congress in Hobart also cited the UK experience of the significance of focusing planning and strategy on the current community members in a local government area. That starts with understanding who your residents are, rather than focusing only on those who traditionally contact council.
While the State of Sector Report is an excellent tool for practitioners to understand the story of how national trends are impacting their communities, it has the potential to become a powerful advocacy tool within their own communities, as well as for the wider sector at the regional, state and national levels.
Why all data is not equal
With at least basis levels of data collection ubiquitous across local governments, there is a need for sector guidelines on what constitutes data integrity. As explained by Professor Andrew Markus, at the launch of the Scanlon Foundation’s 2016 Mapping Social Cohesion Report, much of the most unhelpful input on matters of community resilience comes from a very small proportion of individuals, however if data is not gathered and analysed accurately, the issues and the responses become disproportionate. Community feedback on planning is another example; what constitutes community consultation, who should be consulted, how long should the community have to respond, where should invitations to comment be placed.
Beyond individual councils, to be useful, data must be comparable across (in the case of our sector) local governments. What data is collected, how it is collected and in which timeframes impacts the veracity of the outcomes. One of the advantages of having the State of the Sector online, is that all the links through to the .id database reflect the latest data available, and in the case of data based on the Census figures, the release of the Census 2016 data this year, will ensure local governments are getting the best information possible.
From a structural standpoint, the biggest challenges of putting the report together were working out what to include of the state and federal information available – and how to source the right LGA data that could be used by the sector.
Creating the story in a report of this scope (relative to the state and national levels) was also challenging because, to a degree, each LGA is a story unto itself, other stories include 3 or 4 councils in proximity, others include councils on opposite sides of the country which share common attributes, while a few fit into the state position. For instance, while housing is the major story in inner Melbourne (Victoria), in the Northern Grampians (Victoria) the main issue is falling population and an aging population. For most states in fact, the overriding state trend completely missed some LGAs altogether. Some councils may be moving forward on community engagement strategies, whereas others may by leading the thinking on another arena such as workflow design, gender diverse hiring practices, planning or climate management.
The temptation might be to attempt to create a separate case study for each council – which has its own appeal – however, the purpose of this report is to bring the sector together and provide comparative analysis useful to arguments in support of the wider sector, rather than just individual councils. That said, the .id database does address specifics for each council, and the report was never envisaged as a standalone report without those tools.
Not just a flash in the pan
Australia in a Century of Transformative Governance: A Federation for Communities and Places was released by LG Professionals Australia and the University of Canberra's Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis in 2016. The report calls for a greater role for local government within our three-tiered system. It suggests that local knowledge and connections within their communities – which councils around Australia intrinsically possess – are key to unlocking innovative approaches and unexpected collaborations; and if allowed to flourish, will deliver the best possible quality of life to residents.
In many respects, the State of the Sector 2016-2017 is the natural progression for our organisation. Given the place-based and multi-functional strengths of local government, how can the sector better present our position, and contribute on the local, state and national levels? We believe that a crucial component to developing and delivering on the promise of local government is by gathering, analysing and sharing important, relevant data that can be leveraged to enhance understanding, set priorities, and improve and enable communities
In 2017-2018 we will reach out to more senior members of our sector, and to academic institutions, technical specialists, special interest groups and individual councils to invite contributions to continue to build a cohesive and detailed picture of the state of the local government sector. Over time, we are aiming to build an even richer source of data and analysis, with external links to the great work that is already out there – so the end-result each year is meaningful and useful to local government practitioners.
As the sector changes, and is expected to do less with more, the need to advocate, convince, and connect with our communities, other levels of government, businesses and collaborators increases. Data can inform decision-making, and is essential in getting others on board with our initiatives, and competing for scarce resources.
Data, and growing abilities to gather and harness it in the 21st Century, is not just for big corporate or big government. While knowledge itself used to be power, the data age means analysis, organisation of the data and storytelling have become the differentiators. Councils are moving towards a more sophisticated relationship with data, and also into complex collaborations with organisations and institutions which can collect, organise and analyse it. Photographs, sound and movement sensors, modelling and online responses all count to the data-based argument.
Several Australian local governments have either used external expertise to tap into the latest data gathering and analysis techniques, and many more projects are in the design and implementation process. For instance, 3D modelling has been used in councils around the country to support planning decisions in terms of coastal erosion and engaging the community with new developments. Some councils are also working with external firms to come up with effective methods to collect and utilise data on road noise.
By definition, local government governs local communities – but geographical borders are disappearing in many ways. What does this mean for local governance and local governments? One thing I believe, is that by sharing our information and stories, it opens up opportunities for councils to learn from those they share attributes with – no matter where they are located. And we do have a lot in common.