Local Government is the level of government closest to the people. It provides a range of important essential services such as: water, waste, planning, local regulation/enforcement and physical infrastructure. In many locations it is the major employer. The elected representatives (councillors) are from the local community. Most people will know someone who is either employed by the local council or serves as a councillor. It is an important organisation in disaster management responses with many councils facilitating disaster management committees and leading or providing support during a disaster.
The crisis brought on by COVID 19 is something we’ve no seen since the Spanish Flu during the early years of the 20th century. Although a health emergency it impacts on all of us with lifestyles changed, employment put on hold, socialising conducted through the internet.
What role should or could local government be performing at this time.
Let’s look at a few options.
Every Council has a well-developed internet presence with professionally designed web pages, ongoing social media presence and distribution of information via email and other electronic mechanisms. It seems logical that local government is a good option for the provision of accurate information disseminated by other lead agencies, such as health. This is exactly what is happening. Many councils are using their virtual capacity to distribute information and fact sheets throughout the community. But could they go further?
Councils have experience in coordinating local responses to a range of emergencies and other situations. They often provide the chair or administration support for important local committees and have good liaison with other agencies such as health, the police, other local elected representatives, government departments and community organisations. There is a role for local government to, at least, distribute information about community kindness projects. A number of these have developed organically during the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis. Often these are as simple as interested locals offering to run errands or complete small tasks for those who are self isolating or quarantined. These types of volunteer groups have sprung up throughout many communities. Many councils are distributing information about these groups through their web pages and other electronic sources. There is a further role in this for local government by sponsoring or supporting these volunteer efforts. Many councils already coordinate a number of volunteer actions. It isn’t a big leap for local government to provide this coordination for these important community support endeavours.
Local government has another important role to perform in partnering with other levels of government, including elected representatives, to coordinate a local response. The local council in my area is part of such a committee. These committees would include representatives of various government departments, local parliamentary members at both state and federal levels and perhaps welfare organisations. In many ways this is incredibly similar to responses during natural disasters. By forming these local governance committees there is a greater chance that messages distributed will be consistent and reliable. It would also be a source of the development of more formalised responses by being in a position to marshal and organise government and community resources for action.
It is disappointing that local government, in Australia, is not involved officially with higher level government meetings such as COAG.
During this period of uncertainty there is an ongoing role in the provision of essential services. With many people working from home, self isolating or now being out of work it is important that services such as water, waste road maintenance are still carried out. This provides ongoing employment for some but also ensures that people are not placed under further stress or a potential develops for their health being compromised due to lack of service provision.
This is an important role for local government that is often downplayed by many.
A decade ago, there was a requirement for local government in Queensland, NSW and Victoria to prepare important social documents. In Victoria these were called health and Wellbeing Plans, NSW they were Social or Community Plans and Queensland Community Development Strategies. This requirement meant that Councils had a documented plan to build community and a document to report progress against. In NSW and Queensland this requirement no longer exists. NSW replaced it with Integrated Planning and Reporting while Queensland has not put into operation an alternative reporting mechanism. Victoria has retained this requirement. The removal of this requirement has led to the devaluing of community development and community building by some councils with community service units being a shadow of their former selves.
With local government embracing, often, neo liberal and managerial approach to their work one of the casualties can be the work in building community. As local government, and other governments have moved away from service provision to the mantra of “small government” the provision of community development has decreased. As Councils have embraced the traditional, conservative concept of their role as being basic finances and infrastructure (the notorious 3 Rs – Roads, Rates and Rubbish) their role in the community sphere has shrunk.
This highlights a major issue when dealing with COVID-19. In this early stage of the virus most are coping with lockdowns and self isolation. However, as it progresses and diminishes there will be a real need to rebuild our communities and society. This will take coordinated and planned community development work as people once again are able to gather together, have physical and social contact. Those councils who have maintained their community development presence and have existing community development plans/strategies in operation will be well placed to rebuild community in partnership with community groups, individuals, government and non-government agencies. Many will already have these partnerships. However, those who have wound back their community involvement, possibly are not involved in the community sector will have a steep learning curve in the work they need to do to be part of the reconstruction of civil society.
Now is the time for Local Government to commence planning the community rebuilding phase or they will be flat footed in responding when the time comes. As the old saying goes “A failure to plan is a plan for failure.”