Modernising Council Services to Revolutionise Customer Experience

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Jane Murugan 20 March 2023
Modernising Council Services to Revolutionise Customer Experience

Part of the Local Government National Insights Series - 5 Key Takeaways based on Public Sector Network’s Virtual Event, 1 June 2022)

Like all tiers of government across Australia, the local government sector has been ravaged by the global pandemic and the continued after affects. Though most of the initial responses came from the federal government and particularly from state and territory governments, now that most of the health measures have been lifted, it is councils that are continuing to endure the consequences. From tremendous movement across the country, to technology and communication struggles, and recruitment and retention challenges, councils across the country are still coming to terms with so many of the nuances that they now need to deal with. These and numerous other issues came out of the Local Government National Insights Series, and the following are five of the key take-aways from that event, though of course many of them are inter-connected and inter-related:

A Change in the Australian Demography

In the Australian context, terms like ‘sea change’ and ‘tree change’ were introduced in 2001 by demographer Bernard Salt in his book, ‘The Big Shift’. In those days, it seemed almost exotic for people to move from the city to the beach or the bush, but some people were doing it, and thus it became a phenomenon for a while. However, though the noise around it died down for a while, it never really stopped, and Stephen Johnston, the Chief Executive Officer of Bundaberg Regional Council in Queensland, says that “one of the unexpected flow-on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a population shift,” particularly on the east coast. It has been driven in part by the fact that “employers and employees have discovered flexible working arrangements and an ability to work remotely,” and in part by a lack of fear. Whereas it used to be scary to move from the city to the regions, that is no longer the case. In fact, “it [the move to the regions] currently shows no signs of slowing down.”

For a council like Bundaberg, which is “four hours north of Brisbane,” this demographic shift has and is continuing to pose some significant challenges. For one thing, whilst it may have been true that a move to the regions meant cheaper house prices, in most cases this is no long the case. “House prices and land prices in Bundaberg are sometimes 40% to 50% higher than they were just two years ago, and rental accommodation is almost impossible to secure. Building costs are also escalating,” and so is inflation. But at the same time, a move to the regions is still attractive, in part because “digital connectivity has improved massively in many areas, and the NBN is giving people more options.”

This is true right across the country. Because of the new portability of employment, many industries have been susceptible to what has become known as ‘the great resignation’. Phil Robson, the Channel Sales Manager at Enghouse Interactive APAC, a global ‘Engineering House’ company that “deals with software solutions and communications,” says that to retain staff or to keep them engaged remotely, “you need to keep them fulfilled” irrespective of where they are working. In general, largely because of the pandemic, “the local government sector is undergoing somewhat of a revolution,” and thus it is important for all councils to be aware of the changing demographics and to “work together across the industry to try and find ways to address this challenge.”

In regional South Australia, Deb Larwood, the Chief Executive Officer of the District Council of Kimba, says that their challenge is somewhat the opposite. Situated “about 475km northwest of Adelaide and 155km from Port Augusta,” according to the 2020 census, they had a population of “1056 people, with 629 residing in the town. This is a decline of almost 2.5% on the 2016 census.” Of the people that they do have, “approximately 40% work either directly or indirectly in the agricultural sector,” but “the 21st  century farming model has evolved.” So their challenge is to keep the people that they have in spite of this, and to attract new residents and visitors as well.

Looking after your Employees

One way of attracting people to a town or even to a metropolitan centre, is to ensure that the town – through the council – functions as best as it can, and this is largely due to the employees of the council. Therese Manns, the General Manager of Randwick City Council in metro Sydney, says that “our people are the most important assets that we have in our organisation, and they are the ones that deliver the customer experience and the customer service. It is therefore really important that we have great staff engagement.” At Randwick, the workforce is made up of “800 individuals, each of whom comes with their own experiences, values, motivations and skillsets.” Looking after them as individuals and acknowledging that is the key to success.

In many ways, “COVID upended the way that we do things, but it really hasn’t changed the foundations and the enablers for good engagement.” And when it comes to staff engagement, the most important factor is having an “articulated preferred culture.” This is different from engagement, but just as necessary. “Culture is the way that we do things around here; engagement is how people feel about working here. Totally different, but if we have a good managed culture the people will feel better about working here.” The culture at Randwick for staff is about “them understanding that their effort makes a difference.” It is about having task-focussed behaviours and a self-awareness. This means that everyone, from the GM down, is encouraged to acknowledge where they feel that they are lacking so that “other people around can jump in and help with that.” Another part of the supportive culture is accepting “whether or not we like it, that what happens at home affects us at work.” This is about “taking a whole-of-person approach to engaging with our employees.”

For Deb Larwood it is also about employee engagement, but in a different way. Their council is large in that it covers an area of nearly 4,000km2, with a road network of 1,697km, but given the small population, there are “only 20 employees and 16 FTEs.” Their staff are very committed and passionate but don’t have all the skills. For instance, “we don’t have an IT person on staff and engage a consultant from Adelaide when required.” This is the case for other specialty occupations too. COVID was the major catalyst for their digital upgrade program, which is still continuing, and it affected staff as much as it did the community. Admin staff for instance, who are often the hardest to recruit and retain, “have now been resourced to work from home with procedures in place to ensure that this can happen at a moment’s notice.” This has provided a certain level of flexibility that was previously missing and has the unintended consequence of assisting with retention. In a practical sense, “communication devices have been upgraded to ensure uninterrupted points of contact are available regardless of where staff are working.”

In general, “rates, roads and rubbish are still pivotal parts of Council’s operating model, but smaller local governments have been forced to evolve and take on more responsibility for non-traditional service offerings,” and this has affected staff engagement as much as it has affected customer service.

The Importance of having the right Technology

The pandemic has spotlighted the need to have good technology, including digital instruments that work for the benefit of all. With the right technology, not only employee engagement but also customer service can be increased and enhanced. Deb Larwood says that though the worst of COVID is over, “for our council, Zoom is here to stay as a means of combating the remoteness of our community.” Technology has been a saviour and has “played a bigger than expected part in our day-to-day lives,” so much so that “digital platforms have been engaged to ensure continuity of services.” In fact, “the flexibility and adaptive use of digital technology has allowed our council to be more resilient, which provides a level of future-proofing, allowing council to be more agile and proactive in a changing environment.”

Therese Manns says that as much as technology has been important in the last few years, “it is about the way that technology is used for and the thinking that goes into it, along with the data that’s put into it, that ensures that it is going to be a success.” At Randwick, one of the enablers of engagement is data. 

“As a general manager overseeing 800 people, I’m not waiting for surprises. The data that I get through the surveying of staff helps me understand very clearly how we’re tracking and when I need to jump in and intervene.” 

Therese Manns, General Manager, Randwick City Council (NSW)

Phil Robson says that there is a tension currently in councils between supply and demand; between “the demands on services and the higher community expectations of quality.” In many case, “we believe that the right technology in local government can strike the right balance and deliver against both sets of expectations.” However, despite representing a technology company, he also says that often if there are issues with service delivery, “it’s not necessarily the technology that is missing; it’s that it is not necessarily being used in the right way.” For example, in terms of contact centres, most of them these days have “modern solutions that can deliver an optimum service.” However, to get that optimum service, “you need to have the right pieces and you need to understand how best to use them,” which is not always the case in all councils. The important thing therefore is to use technology in the most effective and efficient way possible. 

“Technology should deliver answers faster and the way people want them. Residents expect fast, efficient service regardless of the channel that they choose.” 

Phil Robson, Channel Sales Manager, Enghouse Interactive APAC

It is therefore incumbent on the council to “optimise the service delivery” and to create the efficiencies that residents demand, including “offering a range of channels that reflect your demographic.” On top of that, since cost is always a concern, it is also very important to seek out “useful features you’re not using from existing tools, including getting all the potential updates or add-ons.” One of the ways to achieve this is to “remove silos in your operation.” When staff work together and collaborate, customers notice, and therefore it is also important that all staff are on the same page when giving advice. “Having a single routing engine for all your channels gives you a number of administrative benefits, chief among them is consistency, which customers appreciate.”

Ensuring consistent Connectivity

Technology is crucial in our modern world, as we’ve seen, but in regional councils the need to connect has also highlighted the problems with connectivity. In Kimba for instance, Deb Larwood says that even before the pandemic, “the NBN worked most of the time, but not always.” This was always a “frustrating” problem when watching Netflix, but until COVID came along, it didn’t affect communication in the way it does now. One of the biggest problems was that there were not enough communications towers in the area. This meant “going to the big smoke to engage with government stakeholders and our nation’s decision makers in Adelaide, which is a 10 hour roundtrip for us.”

The result of these discussions was that “we’ve been fortunate to secure a new mobile phone tower as part of the Mobile Blackspot Program, although we’re still working on the location of where to put it.” This is a huge coup for the region and the tower “will benefit businesses, the community and our staff through enhanced phone coverage, and it will also provide a future for telecommunications for us.” Though the tower is not in place yet, the prospect has reinvigorated the town and ensured that some people who were going to leave, are now staying. The dominance of Zoom and other digital platforms that came about as a result of the pandemic have also assisted in getting “our telecommunications provider to develop internet access with the capacity to handle streaming devices.” With the appropriate investment in such platforms as well as laptops or iPads for staff and in some public spaces, “we are about engage with a wider audience, and to extend this reach beyond traditional lines.”

In Randwick, Therese Manns says that they are also rethinking the way they connect and engage. Whilst connectivity is not an issue for them like it is in regional areas, the new ways of working still pose problems. “We’re all moving to a hybrid kind of arrangement, but what does that mean for our team meetings? That’s something that continues to be a challenge,” but like all things related to people, “it comes down to individual goals and personal bests.” Some people may not engage in the same way in team meetings online, whilst for others it will be an easier way to engage. As long as everyone knows what works for them and how to get the most of their environment, then it will work. 

From a council perspective, one way they are consistently engaging and connecting with their staff is through surveys. Most councils do annual surveys of their staff, or sometimes more often, and climate and other surveys less regularly. Whilst Randwick does those kinds of surveys too, for the purpose of knowing where people are at, “I survey the staff every two weeks.” In part because “if you’re just getting feedback from your staff once a year, then you’re not going to be agile enough to respond as effectively as you can.” The common argument against regular surveys is that there is going to be “survey fatigue. Who wants to fill in a survey every fortnight?” People who say that also ask “what’s in it for me?” However, neither of these issues are raised by the staff because they know that the purpose is for “the general manager to know what’s going on at the ground level, and it only takes one minute to fill in the survey every fortnight. If you want to be engaged, then give me one minute every two weeks. That’s all I'm asking for.”

Getting ready for the Next Challenge

In towns across regional Queensland, though the population continues to expand, Stephen Johnston from Bundaberg says that they are ill prepared for the growth. For instance, once you leave the Brisbane metro region and start to drive north, “the National Highway peters out to two lanes, and that’s an indicator to me how underprepared regional Australia is to take on the growth burden.” Some members of the current and former federal government have said that they want to see half of Australia’s population growth in regional and coastal towns up and down the east coast, “but the numbers don’t stack up,” and in fact, the congestion and other burdens and implications “will be on councils like ours.” To accommodate even a small growth, let alone a larger expansion, towns will need “substantial investment in new infrastructure, particularly things like water, sewage and roadworks.”

Some demographers suggest that the current influx is “based on millennial migration; young families relocating to regional areas.” But even if that is only on a temporary basis, it has huge repercussions for towns like Bundaberg, which is seeing a lot of that current migration. Putting aside the fact that “most of our population growth actually comes from immigration,” it is becoming increasingly clear “that there needs to be a much better alignment between regional policy, and between state and federal governments.” Already there have been plenty of examples of misalignment, which have caused havoc, especially because this idea of migration to the regions is not new. In Bundaberg, though working with other levels of government is sometimes complicated, the council is taking the initiative and investing locally to prepare or future-proof itself for whatever comes next. For instance, “we’ve invested $30 million to upgrade our water treatment plants, and we’ve put $20 million towards closing an old sewage plant. We are also constructing a new $50 million aquatic centre to replace an old pool.” Construction projects are continuing, but Council is also embarking on “a new scheme to attract projects of regional significance.” Council needs to continue to “control the release of greenfield subdivisions, and we need to plan our own futures.” 

A council like Bundaberg has always been focussed on “delivering strong social, economic and environmental outcomes across our community, whilst also trying to build human capital.” The current demographic shift “if not the greatest in the last 20 years, is certainly the fastest.” 

“It’s going to take a concerted effort from all three levels of government to respond, and we’re hopeful that the new federal government will invest in appropriate infrastructure that supports their regionalisation agenda.”

Stephen Johnston, Chief Executive Officer, Bundaberg Regional Council (QLD)

In Kimba, whilst the challenges are different, Deb Larwood says they are no less important. Once digital connectivity issues were more or less sorted, ensuring that people were engaged was the next big challenge. Since Facebook is “predominantly the social media platform of choice, we’ve adjusted the way we operate to maximise this platform.” The Council created the ‘Elf on the Shelf’ campaign, and ‘Sheepy McSheepface’. Both are kids toys that have been used to boost constituent engagement. During the last council election, the elf was photographed at many booths “to encourage our residents and ratepayers to enrol and vote. This ensured an increase in both enrolments and Facebook followers as people waited on the edge of their seats to see what antics the elf got up to next.” Meanwhile, Sheepy “visited and promoted local businesses on Facebook,” which also resulted in great exposure and “he has become the unofficial mascot for our community.” 

To a large extent, whilst engagement of this sort is important, it is also somewhat trivial. The real challenge came when “Council began playing a proactive role in recruiting a doctor to provide permanent GP services.” Whilst there is a hospital in the region, attracting a permanent doctor “or other skilled professionals” is always an issue. To combat this, Council invested in a drone and used it to record images of the area. “The idea is to develop three videos that will be used in the recruitment process to attract doctors and other workforce personnel to the community.” The videos will be targeted and won’t only feature drone footage. “This recruitment process will ensure our commercial workforce remains agile, and it is also a way of future-proofing our community.” 

“To remain viable and appealing, we as local government leaders must be the ones to innovate and take charge to get our communities to a position where they can achieve economic success for the long-term future of our towns, and that is what we are doing.”

Deb Larwood, Chief Executive Officer, District Council of Kimba (SA)

In Randwick they are also setting themselves up for the future. Therese Manns says that long-service recognition for staff is important. “People often celebrate five, ten or twenty years, but what do they do?” In most councils they have a ceremony and maybe get presented with a gift, but at Randwick, “we invite them to plant a tree, to put their roots down and actually have something grow from their service.” The idea is to make everyone feel involved and engaged. 

The fortnightly surveys help in this regard too. Not only do they provide real data, but there is space for comments too, both positive and negative. “It creates real conversations, and over the last year we have had over 3,800 individual contributions or comments,” each one of which is read and if necessary, acted upon. One thing that became clear last year was that “during the pandemic and in winter, we noticed a little bit of a lull.” To combat this, at 12:30pm each day there was a half hour live update on the intranet by the GM or other council leaders. Despite the dire predictions, “we got our highest engagement results during winter and during those lockdown sessions.” To move forward, it is critical to “monitor change and to respond.” This also means sharing the good stories and intervening if something is going wrong. “Creating good engagement strategies to future-proof our workforce is about understanding our people, keeping the lines of conversation always open and knowing when to intervene.”

Phil Robson from Enghouse says it is also about knowing when to step in. “It is critical for local government to know when to increase agility.” All councils should be confident that they have continuity of services so “you need to plan for peak demand or even for a disaster, and you need to know that the technology you have will be able to support you.” For instance, in a call centre, “you should be able to easily switch from inbound to outbound calls as necessary. This increases productivity and ensures that you’re always able to offer the best possible service.” Ultimately, councils are about “customer service and delivering efficiency targets in the most effective way.” Whilst technology can help, people should always be at the centre and if nothing else, the pandemic has taught that having an ability to “offer services to residents in the event of a crisis is critical.” All councils need to be aware of this and prepared.

Modernising Council Services to Revolutionise Customer Experience

Virtual Event, 1 June 2022

Local governments across Australia have been required to navigate many di­fferent challenges created by the impacts of COVID-19. Something that many thought would be a temporary speed bump has forced councils to permanently reassess the way they conduct business and off­er services to their communities.

Local government plays a critical role in the provision of governance, infrastructure, and services for local communities. Councils have used continuous improvement and quality initiatives as a common tactical approach to stay viable and continue to provide value to their communities. These tactical responses have varied in their e­ffectiveness. For ongoing success, councils must continue to be resilient and agile with their business improvement processes.

This virtual event equipped attendees with new ideas and strategies to improve their council service offerings and streamline processes for a resilient and agile local government.

Featured Speakers: 

  • Stephen Johnston, Chief Executive O­fficer, Bundaberg Regional Council (QLD)
  • Therese Manns, General Manager, Randwick City Council (NSW)
  • Deb Larwood, Chief Executive O­fficer, District Council of Kimba (SA)
  • Phil Robson, Channel Sales Manager, Enghouse Interactive APAC
Australia Australia

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Jane Murugan MM, Public Sector Network