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Chapter 6 : Joined-up government


It is not uncommon now to hear that the way to achieve better service delivery outcomes, better regional development outcomes and greater efficiencies in management of costs and resources is to improve coordination between the three levels of government. The idea is far from new, and although activity aimed at achieving greater coordination is evident at every level, progress is uneven and the barriers - particularly between all three levels - are substantial. This is largely because such approaches challenge the traditional linear 'top down' model of policy implementation.

In the United Kingdom, there have been changes in the relationship between central and local government arising from the Labour Government's 'New Deal'. There has been significant debate about the consequences and challenges of this changed relationship, called 'joined-up' government. Essentially, joined-up government is a response to growing recognition that many challenges facing society need a joint response by governments.

In Australia, many believe local government should have a greater role in partnering with the Australian Government in fulfilling the national policy agenda, particularly in areas such as, for example, regional development, transport and communications, environmental management and Indigenous issues.

There are other drivers for more coordinated activity. An important driver is changing community expectations of local government, with demands for new or increased local government services and expectations that local government will take an active role in regional and economic development. This is particularly the case for many rural and remote councils, where other levels of government are a diminishing presence. Many local governments simply do not have the resources to undertake these new roles, and are therefore obliged to seek other partners.

Many of the established partnerships to date have been between State governments and State local government associations, with the latter playing a major role in brokering and facilitating such agreements. In the States, where there has been significant progress, these associations have been active players.

There is also a history of informal and formal agreements between individual councils and groupings of councils, and this appears to be increasing, particularly around sector-specific issues such as roads and regional development. However, it is activities involving all three levels of government that represent the most challenges. The complexities of engaging and negotiating agreements through so many levels of government are immense and generally require negotiation and agreement within the different levels as well as between them.

As challenging as it is, necessity, community expectation and the desire for better outcomes is increasingly causing all levels of government to look to one another for potential partnerships.

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Agreements between councils

The earliest collaborations occurred at a regional level, between individual councils seeking mutual benefits from joining together. Commonly called Regional Organisations of Councils (ROCs) or voluntary regional organisations of councils, the first recognised grouping was in 1922 in Tasmania.

Another impetus for groupings at regional level was the system proposed in the early 1970s for distribution of Commonwealth grants to local government. It was initially proposed that grants would be allocated according to bids by regional groups, comprising a number of individual councils. This proposal was replaced in a short time by a different method of distribution, closer to the current system.

While developing a regional perspective is one of the things such groupings are well placed to deliver, activities can also include research, resource sharing, advocacy at a regional level and brokering the development and implementation of central government programs.

ROCs are also well placed to form working groups to capture the inputs and efforts of other stakeholders. They are open to approaches from government and non-government bodies where those bodies believe local government involvement would be desirable.

The Australian Local Government Association maintains a database of formally identified ROCs, last updated in April 2002, which currently shows 39 such groupings around the country (see Table 6.1).

Table 6.1 Regional Organisations of Councils registered with the Australian Local Government Association

State Council

NSW Central Coast Regional Organisation of Councils
Central West Regional Organisation of Councils
Illawarra Region of Councils
Macarthur Regional Organisation of Councils
New England Local Government Group
Riverina Eastern Regional Organisation of Councils
Riverina Regional Organisation of Councils
Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils
Sydney Coastal Councils Group Inc.
Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils
Vic Association of Bayside Municipalities
Greater Green Triangle Region Association Inc.
South West Municipalities Group
Qld Central Western Qld Remote Area Planning and Development Board
Eastern Downs Regional Organisation of Councils
Far North Queensland Regional Organisation of Councils
Maranoa and District Regional Organisation of Councils
South East Queensland Regional Organisation of Councils
Western Downs Regional Organisation of Councils
Whitsunday Hinterland & Mackay Bowen Regional Organisation of Councils
WA Eastern Metropolitan Regional Council
North Eastern Wheatbelt Regional Organisation of Councils
North Midlands Voluntary Regional Organisation of Councils
Western Metropolitan Regional Council
Western Suburbs Voluntary Regional Organisation of Councils
South West Group
Rainbow Coast Regional Council
Pilbara Regional Council
Proposed: Central Great Southern Local Government Alliance
SA Central Local Government Region of SA Inc.
Eastern Metropolitan Regional Health Authority
Eyre Peninsula Local Government Association
Metropolitan Eastern Regional Organisation
Murray and Mallee Local Government Association
Provincial Cities Association
South East Local Government Association Inc.
Southern & Hills Local Government Association
Spencer Gulf Cities Association
Tas Cradle Coast Authority (Formerly Tasmania's WNW Councils)

The South Sydney ROC, for example, is widely considered to be an effective example of collaboration, producing substantial savings through joint purchasing.

In north-west Tasmania, the Cradle Coast Authority was highlighted in a recent regional business development report as a positive example of a ROC being effectively engaged with regional development, and not limited to the business of local government and dealings between its members.

The report describes the Authority as a legal entity with a set of rules like a constitution, owned by nine local governments across north-west Tasmania, representing a population of just over 100 000. It says the Authority provides the basis for a 'regional vision' and takes a leadership role across the region.

But it is the resource pooling of all nine local government organisations that enables the Authority to be involved in strategic planning across the region and to enter into projects with other development agencies (Regional Business Development Analysis Panel, 2003 p. 31).

This effectively counters the often-expressed negative view of local governments as parochial, jealously guarding their own turf and competing rather than collaborating with their nearest neighbours.

Not all agreements between individual councils are as formal as those prescribed by membership of a ROC. A group of three councils in New South Wales - Wellington, Blayney and Cabonne - has developed a strategic alliance, that allows them to share specialist staff, for example.

Also in New South Wales, Walcha Council is developing a proposal for a group of 10 councils to form a company to provide plant and information technology services on which they could all draw.

There are many regional and local level examples of collaboration in South Australia. Councils in the south-east of the State combined to undertake a statutory review of their development plans before looking at rezoning. A group of metropolitan councils has established a joint authority to undertake environmental health and food responsibilities, and a number of larger councils are involved in small arrangements to share machinery, facilities and specialist staff.

There are bulk arrangements in place covering all South Australian councils to ensure:

  • borrowings and investment through the South Australian Local Government Finance Authority (1984)
  • public liability cover through the Local Government Association Mutual Liability Scheme (1989)
  • workers compensation cover though the Local Government Association Workers Compensation Scheme (1987)
  • superannuation through the Local Government Superannuation Scheme (1984)
  • electronic purchasing and other commercial purchasing through eCouncils.com - a joint company established by the Local Government Association and the Local Government Finance Authority (2000)
  • a new Local Government Authority Asset Mutual structure for property insurance (2002).

Councils in South Australia are also working together on asset management practices
following a landmark State report - A Wealth of Opportunities - funded by the Local Government Research and Development Scheme which saw all councils record a range of data about every infrastructure asset they own. The report documented some $8 billion of assets and identified a deficit of more than $100 million per annum in maintenance and renewal expenditure.

In Western Australia too, partnership agreements are being developed at the local level on planning and infrastructure and sustainable communities.

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Partnerships at State level

Partnership agreements between State and local governments may be formal or informal. Consultative arrangements, joint project management, steering committees or ministerial roundtables with local councils are fairly common forms of informal arrangements.

Formal agreements tend to fall into one of four categories:

  • bilateral - between individual councils and the State government
  • regional - between self-identifying groups of councils and the State government
  • statewide - between the State government and local government associations covering issues affecting all or most councils
  • issue or sector-specific - between the State government and local councils.

Since 1990, most States and the Northern Territory have made progress in partnership arrangements with local government, with significant activity occurring in Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. Local government associations, representing all local governments within a State boundary, frequently play a key role in brokering and facilitating agreements at this level.

For example, South Australian local councils agreed to support the joint tender of all their electricity needs - $15 million worth of metered sites and public lighting. The Local Government Association of South Australia negotiated undertaking this jointly with the South Australian Government with the resulting contracts reaping annual savings of $1.2 million a year to councils across the State.

To date, the areas covered by partnership agreements at this level have included planning and regional development, infrastructure, service delivery, environmental management, transport, tourism and, most notably in Tasmania, financial relations.

Tasmania has 22 partnership agreements, of which 16 are bilateral agreements between the State Government and individual councils; two are regional agreements and four are State-wide agreements. In the latter group, areas covered include communication and consultation, simplifying planning schemes and waste management as well as financial reform. A major tripartite agreement on positive ageing is also being developed with the Australian Government (see below).

The State Agreement on Financial Reform aims to improve the financial relations between State and local government, and is the first of its kind in Australia. The major reforms in the agreement include:

  • the State Government paying council rates on crown land, apart from certain types of reserves, roads, bridges and associated infrastructure and Hydro land
  • councils paying all State Government taxes including payroll tax, with the exception of parks, reserves and conservation areas
  • abolition of up to $10 million in State Government levies.

The net benefit to local government is expected to be approximately $4 million per year.

A protocol establishing roles and responsibilities of the State government and local government was signed in September 2003 by the Queensland State Government and the Local Government Association of Queensland. One of the principles for the relationship is recognition of 'the need for a coordinated whole-of-government approach to issues affecting local government and for regular consultation to negotiate on issues of concern'.

In the area of service delivery, there is a Partnership Protocol between the Municipal Association of Victoria and the Victorian Department of Human Services, signed in October 2002, for a range of health, housing and community services. The protocol provides a framework to guide existing and future relationships, agreements and activities undertaken by both parties, including planning, policy, program development, service coordination and evaluation at State, regional and local government levels. Victoria also has a formal partnership agreement for urban stormwater management which includes the Municipal Association, the State Environment Protection Authority and Melbourne Water. Its specific objective is an improvement in water quality through better management of stormwater systems.

An overarching State-Local Government Partnership was established in Western Australia in December 2002, with a number of State, regional and bilateral agreements established or under development. At State level, these include partnership agreements on communication and consultation and planning and infrastructure.

And in the Northern Territory, the Local Government Association is developing two separate formal partnership agreements - one with the Northern Territory Government and one with ATSIC and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Service for Indigenous services. In addition, some Territory councils have or are seeking separate bilateral agreements with the Territory Government.

Regional road groups are possibly the strongest examples of agreements developing around a specific issue or sector. Local governments are responsible for 80 per cent of the nation's roads - 645 000 kilometres of the total 811 000 kilometres, and roads account for a significant portion of total local council expenditure. It is therefore not surprising that there has been an increasing amount of joint activity in this area, representing a significant shift in the way State and local governments have agreed to cooperate in the joint management of road networks.

Councils in Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia are now participating in regional road groups.

In Queensland, the Main Roads and Local Government Road Management and Investment Alliance provides a platform for making better decisions on road infrastructure investments as well as significantly improving opportunities to make better use of available road funds and to improve project scheduling and resource sharing across all agencies. The Roads Alliance is also developing a uniform system for collecting, analysing and reporting data on the State's road assets.

To date, 124 of Queensland's 157 local government bodies are involved in the Roads Alliance and 14 regional road groups have been established.

In Western Australia, there are 10 geographically based groupings of local governments that identify and prioritise regionally significant road projects and recommend funding for the local road network.

The State Road Funds to Local Government Advisory Committee, which includes representatives from Main Roads WA and the WA Local Government Association, considers Regional Road Group recommendations. The Committee determines the distribution of State to Local Road Funds.

(See Chapter 4 for more information on regional road groups.)

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Agreements between the three levels of government

The Australian Government provides funding of over $1.9 billion through financial assistance grants (about $1.5 billion annually) and around $400 million through specific program grants, such as Roads to Recovery, aged care services and children's services. This makes the Australian Government the largest single provider of funding support to local government.

There are fewer formal agreements between the three levels of government than there are between some State governments and local government, but there is evidence that activity at this level is starting to grow. The Australian Government is more often looking to local government to help it deliver some of its major policy directions.

One challenge to joined-up activity at this level is the constitutional status of local government that means it is more accountable to the States than to the Australian Government. Another is associated with working across different levels of government and the time and resource implications of establishing and negotiating arrangements through so many levels, including:

  • State governments
  • State local government associations
  • national local government associations
  • regional groupings
  • individual councils
  • community and private sector interests.

Where responsibility for services cuts across the different levels of government, an approach that seeks a more coordinated arrangement to service delivery is likely to deliver better results.

Council of Australian Governments Indigenous trials

The health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians has long been an area where
many believe governments could do better.

In April 2002, through COAG, the Australian Government, with State and Territory governments and a representative of the Australian Local Government Association, agreed to trial a new approach to working with Indigenous communities in up to 10 regions to provide more flexible programs and services based on priorities agreed with communities. Governments agreed that outcomes need to be improved and the way to do that is for:

  • governments to work together better at all levels and across all departments and agencies
  • Indigenous communities and governments to work in partnership and share responsibility for achieving outcomes and for building the capacity of people in communities to manage their own affairs.

An understanding that each region or community is different and probably have different priorities underpins this approach. Governments involved in these trial projects help communities identify their local and regional priorities and agree outcomes, that are documented in local agreements.

Indigenous communities on Cape York in Queensland, Wadeye in the Northern Territory, Anangu Pitjantjatjara Lands in South Australia, Shepparton in Victoria, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the far east Kimberley region in Western Australia have agreed to work with governments in this way. Each of these project sites has an Australian Government department as sponsor, involves relevant State government departments and ministers and has local government participation.

At the time the east Kimberley project site was formally announced, the problems inherent in more traditional government approaches was succinctly expressed by one community leader. He talked about his community's frustration with the time taken up talking to 'government people' who come out one by one, but who then don't talk to each other when they go back.

It is COAG's expectation that the lessons learned from this initiative will be able to be applied more broadly.

Positive Ageing - Tasmania

Over the last 100 years, the proportion of Australia's population aged 65 years and over
has risen from 4 per cent to 12 per cent, and is projected to rise to about 18 per cent by 2020 (ABS, cat. no. 3222.0). In a national first, a protocol agreement for positive ageing is being developed in Tasmania with participation of the Australian and Tasmanian Governments and the Local Government Association of Tasmania.

The parties have established a steering committee that will identify common areas to be addressed within a collaborative tripartite partnership agreement, the objectives of which are to improve services to the community for the care of older Tasmanians and improve their living and community environments.

It is expected that key components of a formal agreement across the levels of government will:

  • provide better exchange of data for service planning purposes
  • increase the level of information regarding new and existing services available within the community
  • generate a coordinated focus on healthy ageing activity and related infrastructures
  • enable streamlined development of residential aged care building works.

In Tasmania, the Office of Local Government resides within the Department of the Premier and Cabinet. This has provided an important impetus to developing the Agreement as it appears to have been accorded a high priority. There is also an established network of partnerships between State and local government in Tasmania.

The Partnership Agreement is expected to be finalised by the end of 2003 with formal signing in March 2004, and will remain in place until December 2006.

If successful, the Agreement could become a model for other tripartite arrangements across other States and Territories and in sectors other than aged care.

Sustainable regions

Sustainable Regions is the major program announced under the Australian Government's major regional policy statement in 2001 - Stronger Regions, A Stronger Australia.

A major message emerging from consultations with the regions that informed the statement was the lack of coordination and collaboration across levels of government and the need for more effective relationships.

Taking a 'locational' approach, the program, managed by the Department of Transport and Regional Services, helps regional communities address priority issues they have identified on the understanding that regional, rural and remote communities are in the best position to understand their own needs and opportunities.

Assistance under the program is initially being provided to eight 'prototype' regions experiencing disadvantage:

  • Atherton Tablelands, Queensland
    Local Government Areas - Atherton, Eacham, Herberton and Mareeba
  • Wide Bay Burnett, Queensland
    Local Government Areas - Biggenden, Bundaberg, Burnett, Cherbourg Community Council, Cooloola, Eidsvold, Gayndah, Hervey Bay, Isis, Kilkivan, Kingaroy, Kolan, Maryborough, Miriam Vale, Monto, Mundubbera, Murgon, Nanango, Perry, Tiaro, Wondai, Woocoo and Yarraman District of Rosalie Shire
  • Far North East New South Wales
    Local Government Areas -Tweed, Ballina, Byron, Lismore and Kyogle
  • Campbelltown-Camden, New South Wales
    Local Government Areas - Campbelltown and Camden
  • Gippsland, Victoria
    Local Government Areas - Bass Coast Shire, East Gippsland, East Baw Baw, Latrobe, South Gippsland and Wellington
  • North West and West Coast Tasmania
    Local Government Areas - King Island, Circular Head, Waratah-Wynyard, Burnie, Central Coast, Devonport, Latrobe, Kentish and West Coast
  • Playford-Salisbury, South Australia
    Local Government Areas - Playford and Salisbury
  • Kimberley, Western Australia
    Local Government Areas - Broome, Halls Creek, Derby West Kimberley and Wyndham East Kimberley

Funding is available under the program for projects including minor local infrastructure, skills building, encouraging small businesses and local enterprises, as well as addressing social development, environmental and cultural issues in each of the regions.

It is an opportunity to take a whole-of-government approach to dealing with issues in a designated region - not just within Australian Government agencies, but also at State and local government levels. Each region has a Sustainable Regions Advisory Committee comprising business, community and local government representatives and at least one member from the relevant Area Consultative Committee. This group determines priorities for the region, activities to be undertaken and recommends projects for funding to the Australian Government Minister for Transport and Regional Services.

The program began in the latter part of 2001 and has been extended through to 2005-06.

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Many of the examples of joined-up government are tentative explorations, particularly between the three levels of government. It is only in the next few years that assessments will be made of their successes and failures and commitments given to future or wider joined-up activity. At local government level, the picture is more robust although uneven. There is a wide range of formal and informal activity between individual councils and groups of councils responding to many different drivers - community expectation, financial necessity and a desire to seek solutions other than amalgamation among them. And increasingly, local government associations are playing a key facilitation role in developing partnerships between local and State and Territory governments. Whatever the trajectory and ultimate success of each and every effort at joined-up government, an important legacy of this approach is a new mind-set: a willingness at all levels to tackle issues and challenges in a different, collaborative way, and a new dialogue between previously unthought-of partners.

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