This month we chat with Tony Lawson, well known consultant in the sector and former CEO of Mitcham.
Tony give us his perspective of some of the challenges facing Local Government, and his current involvement.
Hi Tony - What's your current role, and what does it involve?
I have been running my own consultancy practice for the last 16 years building on my experience as a CEO in State and Local Government.
I have had some really interesting and challenging assignments over my whole career and as a consultant. I consider that I have been really fortunate to have undertaken a really diverse range of exciting projects which brings me to my current role as Lead consultant and Executive Officer to the Local Excellence Expert Panel. This independent Panel was established by the LGA to develop a vision for a "Council of the Future". The Panel is chaired by former State Government Minister, Hon Greg Crafter with former District Court Judge, Christine Trenorden and the former Director of the Australian Centre for Excellence in Local Government, Professor Graham Sansom.
I was appointed by the LGA in October 2012 to undertake this role and I have found it an absolute joy to work with the Panel and to engage with a huge array of key stakeholders across the government and industry spectrum, including many key people involved in Local Government. I worked with the Panel to produce a Discussion Paper – Towards the Council of the Future. This discussion paper is aimed at encouraging debate and discussion about the future of local government and the changes which are required to ensure that it has the capacity to remain relevant and sustainable into the future.
I will be closely involved in the preparation of a final report to the LGA which is due in mid October.
What's your Local Government background? Where were you before and what attracted you to your current role?
As stated I was CEO at the City of Mitcham in the late 90’s and I was engaged by the council as a “change agent”. I presided over a major transformational change of the organisation and introduce a customer service focus for which we were recognised nationally. I also introduced a more rigorous approach to strategic and business planning and we became more involved in economic development and community engagement.
When I established my consulting practice I was fortunate to be able to continue my role in Local Government and the LGA particularly used me to undertake a wide number of projects involving policy development and review. I think this is a particular strength of mine and this is what attracted me to the role with the Expert Panel.
What are the some of the most significant changes you have seen in Local Government - and what does the future hold, in your opinion?
A very significant change has been the professionalisation of Local Government at the staff level from CEO level and down. We have seen a significant change from the “town clerk” mode to professional corporate leadership and management. There is a greater focus on governance, accountability and community engagement.
However, one of the challenges will be to address the capacity of elected members to manage the affairs of councils in an increasingly complex environment. The research that the Panel has undertaken suggests that financial pressures alone will stretch the capacity of councils to be able provide the required level of resources to meet the needs of their communities as both State and Federal governments struggle with burgeoning debts and constricting revenues.
How would you compare a consulting role to working for a council?
What are the advantages, and maybe some of the disadvantages?
A key advantage of working as a consultant is the exposure to a wide variety of organisations and issues. I am also fortunate to have a constant supply of really good projects and I have made very good friends in the Local Government and other sectors.
Over the last few years I have expanded my focus into the health sector and as such I have been involved in some really challenging and interesting projects particularly in Indigenous health.
As for disadvantages I must say I miss the daily interaction with staff and the other thing that keeps me alert as a consultant is the old adage is that you are only as good as your last job!
What is the most satisfying thing about working for yourself?
The variety of my work is its greatest attraction. In addition so long as I meet my deadlines I can work quite flexibly which an office environment does not always allow.
What's the longer term plan - where do you see yourself in 5 years?
In the medium to longer term I see myself continuing what I am doing but the focus may change a little. I have really got the bug for local government reform and want to focus more on this in all its facets.
I also intend doing more work in the health sector including board appointments on a number of health related boards.
In addition I believe in keeping my brain active to hopefully stave off Alzheimer’s! You never know I may end up doing a PhD!
What's your most embarrassing Local Government moment?
There is too many to recall! However there was one occasion when I gave an answer to a question to an elected member which involved some financial analysis which was clearly wrong but I gave the answer in such an authoritative manner that it wasn’t challenged but all my senior staff were falling around laughing their heads off! I was constantly reminded by them of this gaff!
How do you spend your leisure time outside of work?
I am a passionate Crows supporter and go to most home games. I am also an avid reader and read mostly crime – what I call ”gripping trash”. I have also discovered the game Words with Friends and play this constantly.
We also have 6 children (a blended family) and 4 gorgeous grandchildren (with another on the way) so this keeps me really busy!
Finally we have caravan and go away at every opportunity, including on local government assignments in the country.