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12th March 2019

Strategies to overcome the skills gap: What can regional and rural Australian councils do?

By Ben Cowling, Managing Director, Local and State Government Solutions at Civica International

85 percent of local government professionals identify digital transformation as an opportunity[1], states recent research from Civica and the University of Technology Sydney. However, this is at odds with the number of successful digital projects – nearly 80 percent admitted failure in implementing digital services. The study adds that a lack of qualified personnel is one of the factors contributing to the failure. This is especially alarming when the 2018 Australian Computer Society Digital Pulse reported that Australia needs a further 100,000 technology jobs to stay competitive[2]. Unfortunately, councils are finding it difficult to attract and retain younger talent, especially Gen Ys[3] highlighting the existence of a skills gap and the need for councils to innovate to ensure undisrupted service to residents.

Regional and rural councils in Australia and New Zealand also face skills shortages, particularly in areas such as digital[4], financial management[5] and others. Their geographical remoteness make them vulnerable to the risk of becoming unable to meet citizen expectations or the benchmark of efficiency driven by digital adoption in the private sector.

The challenge becomes even more pronounced as employee roles in these councils are not easy to fill, and the departure of an employee often results in a general skill and knowledge gap. As a result, they need an interim solution whereby work continues "as usual" while they develop existing employees or acquire new and qualified personnel. As a result, many councils are now turning to the private sector for a solution.

What are councils doing?

For instance, post-amalgamation, one of the councils in Queensland experienced challenges in managing their rates management function. The amalgamated entity had to immediately service over 8,000 ratepayers spread across a geographical area of more than 58,000 square kilometres. This was compounded by outdated property valuations and inexperienced council employees across locations.

To overcome the challenge, the council adopted a two-pronged approach, which included engaging a private partner for systems and people. The private partner not only managed the Rates function for a specific time period but also trained two employees appointed by the council to manage the process going forward. By improving the process and procedures related to rate management, the council was able to ensure the availability of updated information to ratepayers.

Another regional council experienced a skills and knowledge gap challenge following the departure of their Rates Officer. This resulted in Rates tasks not being completed in required timeframes or in accordance with normal business practices. The Council then turned to a private partner, which initiated a thorough Rates Audit to determine and fix a number of issues. This audit improved data integrity and increased revenue for Council. Ongoing Rates Administration has resulted in timely processing of Rates tasks required which has led to a dramatic decline in customer queries and complaints and rates levies being issued with no reported errors.

Preparing for the future

Regional and rural Australian and New Zealand councils can successfully achieve their digital transformation goals by partnering with third-party organisations to address the issue of skills shortage in various ways. These partners can help councils to deliver superior services to citizens within limited budgets by providing the expertise, platform, and technological capability needed. Furthermore, this approach enables councils to work on medium and long-term solutions that involve developing their employees through training, upskilling and developing a workforce strategy that ensures minimal disruption in case of employee departures.

These issues are challenges which many councils are wrestling with all over Australia and New Zealand. In order to continue providing valuable services to its citizens, councils should explore all avenues that enable them to upgrade their service offering in a way that is sustainable in the future.