Building Leadership in Local Government


What differentiates an organisation characterised by exceptional leadership from one that is merely average?
This is a question that concerns leaders across many industries, not the least of whom are leaders within Local Government, a sector characterised by ongoing reforms and Fit for the Future agenda, changing needs of the community, and often temperamental relationship between internal management and elected members of council.


Transforming Leadership and Staff Engagement

Voice Project has worked with Lake Macquarie City Council over their last few Staff Engagement Surveys, and had the opportunity with Council’s Director of Community Development, Morven Cameron, to share their story at the 2015 Australian Local Government Leadership Summit.

Their journey has been truly remarkable, demonstrated in a number of striking results:

  • In their 2015 Staff Engagement Survey, 25 of the 27 measured practices improved when compared to the same results in 2013.
  • On average, results across all measured practices exceeded Voice Project’s benchmark for Local Government Councils.
  • The largest improvements were trust and confidence in Executive Leadership, and by a remarkable 12%.
  • Engagement improved by 4% from an already high base – making Lake Macquarie one of the councils with the highest proportion of engaged staff.


graph of percentage shifts in survey scores between 2013 and 2015.

Major Transformational Leadership Initiatives

How did this local government council achieve such remarkable change? Here is their story and some tips for leadership in Local Government.


Focus on developing internal leadership capability

Leadership Development Program

Work to build leadership strength and performance excellence within the organisation dates back to 2006, when Council developed and implemented a personalised leadership development program based on a national (local government) industry wide competition, known as the Management Challenge. From this early commitment, the Council has evolved its leadership program to incorporate the best training available externally with a suite of tailored in-house programs and opportunities that link to and support its workforce capability framework.

The Executive Leadership Program now offers executive coaching and other forms of continuing professional development opportunities for managers and senior staff. For emerging and aspiring leaders, the organisation has developed the Lake Macquarie Challenge. This program has had a significant impact on the leadership capabilities of the Council’s workforce.

The Challenge is an intensive three-month program focusing on capabilities and behaviours expected of people in leadership positions. Every two years Council identifies 20-25 employees to participate in the program. These people do not necessarily hold management positions, but show an interest or strength in leadership. Challenge participants are involved in a series of training and development activities including sessions on emotional intelligence, 360 degree feedback and group dynamics. The program culminates in a management challenge, similar to the state and national management challenges.

In 2015, the organisation hit what could be considered a transformational moment for its workforce culture, with more than 11 per cent of current staff having completed the Challenge. Feedback from the program has been consistently positive, with participants reporting they obtained a wider collaborative network, broader organisational knowledge and a deeper understanding of Council’s strategies and objectives.

Ongoing Development

Additionally, when undertaking organisational development projects, Council looks for nominations from staff to be involved in project work rather than relying on external consultants. This approach began with the involvement of 120 internal staff in an organisation-wide review of over 180 services, and the same methodology has been repeated across other business process reviews.

Finally, in 2014, Council implemented an organisation wide Capability Framework emphasising the importance of behaviours as opposed to technical skills. Training courses aligned to the Capability Framework were implemented, furthering the development of leadership behaviours such as building trust, delegation and support, and performance feedback.


Build trust


In 2014, Lake Macquarie City Council renegotiated its Enterprise Agreement (EA) using an innovative approach that runs contrary to the traditional adversarial ‘log of claims’ method, which tended to leave people angry at the end of the process, and a final compromise that neither party finds optimal. The organisation used a wholly collaborative process in which a group was established with responsibility for finding solutions to shared problems. This led to the formulation of two new provisions.


The first was a nine-day fortnight, which was already in place for some, but needed to be more equitably and consistently applied across Council. For this to happen, staff and Council needed to demonstrate mutual trust. The Council needed to trust staff to take a day off each fortnight without a loss in productivity and service level, and staff needed to trust that the new approach was not management’s way of getting them to do more with less. By December 2014, most staff members were on the new agreement, with the exception of 10 employees who chose the traditional working week.

Leave Entitlements

The second was sick leave. Council combined sick and carers leave into a combined personal leave provision, and removed all rules requiring proof of illness of a staff member or their family.

Following adoption of the EA, Council has continued to implement initiatives that build trust and deliver benefits for staff. One of these is a new Personal Leave Sharing Scheme which allows employees to donate their entitlements to a ‘pool’ of leave that can be accessed by co-workers who are in need of extended leave due to serious personal illness or the ill health of an immediate family member.


Communicate, consult, and collaborate with key stakeholders


For many years, Lake Macquarie City Council has focussed on building positive relationships, particularly between the elected members of Council and the senior management team. Council values its Councillor engagement and runs a specialised Councillor and MP request system, as well as regular workshops and briefing sessions with the Councillors. This has ensured that Councillors feel involved in the development of plans and programs, rather than simply being presented final solutions.


During the EA process, Council purposefully developed an honest and productive relationship with the three unions who are signatories to the agreement. Morven Cameron said, ‘We worked really hard to make sure we were fully inclusive, even ensuring employees who are not members of the union felt involved and felt they could comment and contribute, with the union’s blessing.’


When negotiating their EA, Council adopted a non-hierarchical and collaborative approach with staff. Negotiations happened in a larger discussion group, with smaller sub groups empowered to investigate options and develop a range of palatable solutions. Interestingly, during the process, it was difficult to differentiate whether a team member was a member of staff, union delegate, or senior management. This ‘flat’ approach supported more fluid transfer of information, collaboration, and a solution-focused approach to problem solving.


Lessons for leadership in change approach

  • Focus on developing and empowering staff because they are the key to performance, and an engaged workforce is critical to achieve high quality and valued services.
  • Share your performance, good and bad, and ask employees to be involved in owning the problem and finding solutions.
  • Monitor performance using survey data, but do not allow the data or the need for good results drive behaviour.

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