I well remember a training session that I attended way back on 4 February 2004. It was a pre-election seminar for anyone that was thinking about contesting the upcoming Council elections. Peter Sutton, former Deputy Mayor of Dubbo, spoke at the three-hour seminar about some of the roles and responsibilities of being a Councillor.
One aspect of the seminar had a profound impact on me. We were asked to form into small groups and we were given a challenging hypothetical problem that we had to try and deal with – and make a decision on – in our imaginary role as a Councillor.
The problem was a tough one and our small group looked at various aspects of the problem. Was the best decision the one that was popular? Would a better decision be one that we thought was better for Dubbo but may not be popular? Was it better to involve lots of our residents and find what the majority of our residents thought? Was there another completely different solution that was a better fit?
While we debated the pros and cons of which decision to make, we struggled with the best approach. When the trainer broke up the groups he discussed what a Councillor should do in the real world if faced with a problem like this. The majority choice vs. the better long-term choice. We waited with baited breath to hear which way the trainer thought we should go.
The answer was (drum roll please)… ‘it depends’.
Deep down we probably all knew that was the answer and there is no right or wrong way to make a decision as a Councillor. Sometimes you make decisions because you feel that the majority of residents want a specific outcome. Kerbside recycling is a perfect example of this. Council made a decision to introduce kerbside recycling largely on the weight of public opinion. Sometimes decisions are made that are against the majority of public opinion but you know they are the right decision for the community going forward. Rate increases drop firmly into this slot. I don’t know any resident who has begged me to put our rates up – but if we are going to continue to employ staff and provide services to the community, then just as prices and wages continue to go up then rates need to go up so Council can continue to operate in the black.
The bottom line is that the role of a Councillor is a tricky one. Listening to residents with different interests and different perspectives and weighing their opinions up against long-term decisions for the benefit of Dubbo is no walk in the park.
The other conceptually difficult component of being a Councillor is that a good Councillor looks at the issues at a distance. Councillors play an essential role in overseeing the overall operation of Council; providing the vision and strategic direction for the Council. Councillors make decisions on policy which then creates the framework for staff to be able to perform their specific jobs. Although it often occurs, the Local Government Act of 1993 made it very clear that Councillors shouldn’t need to be at the level of filling in potholes. They should create the structure that means potholes are repaired and fixed within the normal operation of Council. Taking ordinary people from our daily lives – where we understand potholes – and then asking us to think about policy direction for an organisation with $1.8B worth of assets and an annual budget over $100M is a challenge. It is much easier for the average person to understand something they see or deal with every day rather than something much larger than they normally encounter.
This observation was first noted in a 1956 book called Parkinson’s law, and other studies in administration. Parkinson’s Law of Triviality is that “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” Parkinson dramatised his law with an example of a committee’s deliberations on a nuclear power plant contrasting it to deliberations on building a bicycle shed. A nuclear reactor is used because it is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so they assume those working on it do understand it. A bicycle shed, on the other hand, can be visualised by everyone, so planning one can result in endless discussions because everyone wants to add their touch and show they have contributed.
I believe the real challenge as a Councillor is to try and stay at just the right height in your helicopter – high enough to look at the big picture and not be bogged down in the details but low enough so that you don’t lose touch with what people need.
These are just a few small components of the role of a Councillor but with Council elections set to occur across the State in September this year, I would encourage all Dubbo residents to think seriously about putting your hand up and taking on these challenges on a daily basis. Challenging it may be, but it can be incredibly rewarding when you see our wonderful City grow and prosper.
Tell me what you think the greatest challenge of being a Councillor would be at email@example.com
Clr Mathew Dickerson
Mayor of the City of Dubbo