New ACELG Director Associate Professor Roberta Ryan outlines her vision to position local government in the public consciousness as a critical part of everyday life – a place it surely deserves to occupy.
By Michael Mills
Associate Professor Roberta Ryan has more than 30 years’ experience in local government, public policy development and research analysis. She has followed Professor Graham Sansom as the Director of both the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government (ACELG) and the UTS Centre for Local Government.
Prior to this appointment, she worked for– Urbis, a public policy and urban planning consultancy firm and taught social science and policy at the University of NSW and Macquarie University in Sydney.
How did you first get involved in the local government and policy development sector?
I’ve worked with local government right from the beginning of my professional life. I started out in the community sector as a social worker (which not many people know!) And, right from the start, I worked collaboratively with local government to attract new services into my area.
I worked in many aspects of community development during this time and had to have a really strong understanding of everything going on in my local area. I’ve always had an interest in the things that make communities and localities great places: who are the people, what are their aspirations, what kinds of services do they have, and what do they need? That is one of the things that attracted me to local government from the beginning.
What skills did you develop as a social worker that you still use today?
One of the best skills a community worker can have is an ability to understand what people’s needs and aspirations are. You have to be able to empathise with people to work alongside them. The other thing that has stuck with me my whole working life is the importance of working in multi-disciplinary teams. Having an array of specialised knowledge gets the best outcomes.
What are some of your proudest achievements?
The project that has had the most significant, long-term impact is the Strengthening Local Democratic Capacity Project. We worked with two local governments in New South Wales and three in Victoria to strengthen their capacity for democratic decision making and the way they interact with their communities.
One of the outcomes of this process was the Bronte Catchment Project, which we undertook with Waverley Council and the NSW Environmental Protection Authority. We developed a citizens’ jury. It was quite a long a complicated process, but we worked with the council and the community to prioritise the council’s spending. It delivered outcomes that better reflected the community’s aspirations. We didn’t need to spend more money yet we achieved better service delivery outcomes.
What are some of the other experiences you’ve had that taught you some valuable lessons?
After working as a social worker I was an academic for over a decade, then in private consultancy for a further decade or so. All of these experiences have enabled me to bring different things to this new role.
Working in private consultancy allowed me to work with a whole range of different local governments, both in Australia and internationally. It has given me a broader perspective on some of the issues confronting local government in general.
One of the projects I worked on was a major urban planning framework for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. It involved working with local government to develop the social infrastructure and economic planning for an area that didn’t have any of that in place.
It was an enormous challenge because we had to establish frameworks for governance and institutional delivery arrangements. We worked with city communities and the authorities to design the entire place and ensure it met the community aspirations and the future population capacity.
Leading ACELG and UTS:CLG is the ideal role for me in many ways. It brings together my academic and practice interests in way that I hope can influence sector reform.
Are there any people who’ve really inspired you?
It’s difficult for me to identify a single ‘public hero’ per se. The people who really inspire me are those in Indigenous communities who have worked all their lives to improve the circumstances of their communities, or people who live with kids with disabilities. It’s the ordinary people whose lives are actually extraordinary.
I know that sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s true!
What you would you like to see ACELG accomplish during your tenure?
The directional path of ACELG is pretty well set. We’ve got excellent partners and there has been terrific work done up to this point. My main goal is to better communicate the significance of local government to people’s everyday lives.
Nothing – big or small – happens in Australia without local government playing a significant part, but that idea is not part of our political discourse. That needs to change.
Ian Thorpe started swimming in his local municipal swimming pool, for instance. Similarly, local government, on the whole, coordinates both the prevention and response to bushfires, which is particularly topical given we’re in the middle of the bushfire (and flood) season [at the time of writing]. People think of local government as roads, rates and rubbish only. Those things are important of course, but so are issues like having adequate childcare facilities and parks in the community, quality built form and effective democratic processes.
I’d like to change the way we think about local government, so people recognise its position as a very influential and successful tier of government in Australia.
What do you think ACELG has been able to achieve so far?
The partnerships that ACELG has established have been fantastic and the reach and influence of our partners – including the IPWEA – has been critical to the achievements to date.
Overall, I would like to see every local government in Australia recognise the relevance and importance of what we’ve done. The focus so far has been on the parts of local government that need the most help, especially isolated and remote areas. But we’re interested in addressing many other issues, particularly around finance and infrastructure. IPWEA’s work as part of ACELG’s Organisation Capacity Building program has been influential, such as the practice notes, Asset Management for Small, Rural or Remote Communities and Long-Term Financial Planning. The pending National Assessment Framework online facility for all councils is highly anticipated by the sector. AS AN ACADEMIC, HOW IMPORTANT
Is greater education for the future of local government?
It’s absolutely critical. UTS has supported the first Masters Degree for local government in Australia, which is now available. But, education is not just what you do at university or even in short courses, although those will always be a significant parts of it. I see education, more broadly, as building capacity for learning and experiences within the workplace.