Ethics and governance | Locale Learning

Leadership lessons from the Balranald Shire Council inquiry

by | 17 November, 2021

Dismissal of Balranald Shire Council

The dismissal of a local council by the Minister of Local Government does not happen very often. When it does occur, it has significant ramifications for the council and its community. It is also an opportunity for other councils to learn from what has gone wrong and how they can improve.

In this article, we reflect on five leadership lessons that can be learnt from the dismissal of Balranald Shire Council.

Lesson 1: Councillors should focus on strategic matters

During the early interventions by the Office of Local Government, it was noted that there was a lack of focus by the elected Council on setting the strategic direction. There was also a lack of understanding that councillors have a strategic, rather than operational, role.

This confusion was evident on two levels – both in several Council decisions and then separately in the actions of specific councillors. This caused several issues including ongoing conflict with Council staff and difficulties in the implementation of Council decisions.

The lesson is that councillors should focus on their strategic role and setting the direction of Council. The operational matters should be left to Council staff. Councillors must accept this fact and leave it to the General Manager to implement decisions.

Lesson 2: Strong and effective leadership includes making difficult and contentious decisions

The inquiry report observed the tendency of the elected Council to make “knee-jerk” decisions and flip flop on decision making. Overall, the Council did not demonstrate strong and effective leadership when considering contentious issues, contrary to the guiding principles in the Local Government Act 1993.

There was also a tendency of councillors to “attempt to sheet home the responsibility to staff”. There was a cost to this reactive decision making and indecision – a high turn over of staff and low staff morale and a loss of community confidence.

When governing, councillors should remember that they have been elected to make decisions. They should not shy away from making hard decisions. After all, this is why councillors are elected!

Lesson 3: Healthy debate in the Chamber is essential for democracy

Councillors must be ‘active and contributing’ members of the governing body. In the case of Balranald Shire Council, a small minority dominated the meetings. Some councillors were not active contributors to the debate in the Chamber. A lack of inclusiveness and robustness in the debate can lead to poor outcomes and can reduce the legitimacy of the decision.

When this is occurring, it can also be a sign that there is a power imbalance within the governing body. This means some voices are not being adequately heard. A sign to take stock, check in on the power imbalance and then take active steps to address it so that the elected council is functioning as a collective entity.

Lesson 4: One bad apple can spoil the bunch

The report highlighted that some of the issues at Balranald Shire Council could be attributed to the conduct of certain individual councillors. In the case of interactions with Council staff, one councillor was the key contributor. Other councillors were powerless to prevent this behaviour. On some isolated occasions, the inquiry noted that one or two other councillors encouraged this poor behaviour. In this sense, it was a minority of councillors doing the wrong thing that undid the whole council.

The outcome of the inquiry confirms this kind of culture is not an acceptable way of governing or leadings. It also highlights the importance of establishing a good culture within the elected body from the beginning. A good culture is one where individual councillors are able to confront poor behaviour when they see it happening and know that consequences will follow if this behaviour is not addressed.

Lesson 5: Conflict and disharmony is a costly way to govern

The ongoing dysfunction of the elected Council had significant impacts on everyone involved including senior management. One General Manager noted that “it was one the most stressful periods of his life” working in that environment. Another stated that his mental health was suffering due to the situation.

Negative sentiment in the community about a council also ultimately impacts on the staff. In the worst-case scenario, and particularly in smaller regional communities, it can lead to the breakdown in personal relationships and deprive the community from its democratic right to elect its representatives.

It is also a very costly way to govern. It leads to low morale, unresolved conflict, poor performance and high staff turnover. In turn making it hard to recruit and retain talent. Overall, this is not an effective way to govern.

Want to know more?

In summary, there are many lessons to be learnt from the dismissal of Balranald Shire Council. Most importantly, councils should never lose sight of the fact that they exist to serve their communities and that the elected council is to work collectively for the benefit of that community.

If would like to learn about other lessons to be learnt from the inquiry, you can watch our on demand webinar. 

Need help with your elected Council

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Reach out to Emma Broomfield, Founder & Chief Educator, for a confidential and free discussion about your needs.

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