Wednesday, September 22, 2004

How our corporatised council is killing Sydney

The efficient running of council along corporate lines is one of the achievements attributed to Frank Sartor during his term as Lord Mayor. This is a good thing -- we would rather have a financially sound council than a debt-ridden yoke around our necks.

But this efficiency is coming at a huge price in other respects, and there are deep flaws in applying a corporate model to a publicly representative body.

A corporation exists to extract as much money as possible from its customers for the benefit of its shareholders. Indeed, we see our council is imbued with this thinking -- we have 'customer service centres' and staff are about to undergo a five-year 'customer service' program to improve their 'interface' with... customers.

The trouble is, we elect council and support it with our rates, so we are in fact the shareholders, not the customers. So when council boasts about its huge surplus, you have to wonder. Council has a policy of 'maximising services' rather than reducing rates, for instance. This is fine if the 'services' are really services and not, in some cases anyway, expensive programs that only part of the community agrees with and which cause stress and cost us money.

Is it really a 'service' to have our garage sale, lost cat or flatmate wanted posters torn down each day? Is it really a 'service' that live venues cop massive parking fines because they back onto a No Stopping zone? And is it really a 'service' when rangers hassle cafes such as Fellinis to move all their customers 1.6 metres from the kerb they have been so happily inhabiting for decades? Or to threaten plant shop Urban Jungle in Darlinghurst with $200 fines because they put out plants which beautify their wide corner, as they have been for decades -- also providing free seating for older passers by to take a rest? And is it really a 'service' to plaster Sydney with proscriptive stainless steel regulation signs that expressly forbid any possible sign of life in this sterile 'tidy town'? Or to require a small business to apply for a $30 permit so they can change a light in their under-awning sign? And then another one when they come back with parts and have to put up a ladder again?

It doesn't feel like 'services', that's for sure. It feels like we are naughty schoolchildren on detention, or louts on a train. it doesn't feel like our corporation working in the interests of its own shareholders.

But it runs even deeper than that. Part of the efficiency is achieved by reducing staff working conditions and replacing job-secure salaried staff with people on relativerly short-term contracts. This might be fine for a corporation because it makes managers very accountable in their job of extracting money from customers for the benefit of shareholders.

It has the oposite effect, however, with a council. Whenever a ratepayer goes to one of these middle managers with a problem or an idea, they kick it upstairs for a ruling. If that ruling goes against the ratepayer -- and they mostly seem to -- the middle manager cannot go in to bat for the ratepayer because if they rock the boat their contract won't be renewed. Instead of being a conduit between the public and the council, they become more like meat in the sandwich, and only meek sycophants can stand it.

Over time, therefore, people with guts and any sense of the community are weeded out.

This is especially obvious in our council which has succeeded in imposing the corporate city culture over the more people-oriented South Sydney culture since the forced merger. It also tends to generate a lot more complaints from the public -- leading to the present situation where councillors and staff are so overloaded with correspondence they cannot handle it. Response times are terrible -- not a good indicator of corporate health.

What is needed is a blend of both systems. A well-managed, efficient administration which is imbued with a true service mentality -- not a punitive top-down arrogance. This should be a central tenet in any council's mission statement.

Another central tenet of a council should be to REDUCE expenses for its 'shareholders'. A simple way to do this would be to reduce rates whenever possible. This tends to reduce the cost of living and of doing business, enabling smaller low-profit but unique and interesting businesses to survive, and for low-income people to reside here.

The high-cost approach we now suffer has the reverse effect of creating an undiversified high-income ghetto with only cloned franchise shops who can afford to advertise in mass media. Read your Richard Florida and Jane Jacobs to see how totally outdated is this approach.

And a huge surplus just means they have extracted more money from the 'shareholders' than they need to.

Sydney really needs to grow up, and it won't happen by banning more things and punishing more people. It will happen when our public agents foster community dynamics and only come the heavy when there really is a problem. They should apply the spirit of the law, not its letter. Council might not extract as many fines, but life sure would be a lot more pleasant.


Anonymous said...

This is far too deep for most Sydneysiders!

Anonymous said...

It is only too deep for someone who can only hold a thought for one sentence.