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Quick take: Should cities matter, to the nation?

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

At the time of writing this in April 2022, we sit on the eve of an election. And in the digital, data and cities world it's hard not to think about all levels of government.

Because really, it's not just about the federal government, right? It's actually about the nation. And I am particularly interested in shaping opportunities for cities, because that's where much of the action happens.

I have been involved in shaping (federal) election advocacy platforms for the past six years around smart cities, and tried to nudge an agenda that gets the Australian government to establish the foundations for data leadership.

We've seen some progress.

The 69 page Australian Data Strategy is an interesting read, along with its 7 page companion document the Australian Data Strategy Action Plan.

However, with documents such as this, I go straight for the word search, to see if the right things are being talked about. At first glance, these documents seemed literally void of any specific initiatives around local government.

And the word search confirmed this. In the 69 page Australian Data Strategy the word cities was cited twice. I then searched the words 'local government' together - not one mention.

And the front page has emblazoned across it as a tag-line - "...whole of economy vision for data." And I am sure much of the economy is powered from within our cities, the tens of thousands of small businesses employing most of the nation.

Because as the Strategy itself asserts, " enables a modern economy."

So, you would expect a national government to play a role in helping shape and support the level of government closest to the people, wouldn't you?

But, should the Australian government help enable data use at this level of government?

Well, I am not here to do a post-mortem on the Australian Data Strategy, but rather reflect on the question - "what interest does the Australian Government have in the nation's 537 local authorities"?

Let's just recap some important points on local government in Australia:

  • it's a combined $50B a year business

  • employs 194,000 people

  • maintains 75% of the nations road network

  • they collect just 3.4% of all tax collected across all levels of government

  • it is responsible for disposing of most of the nations waste, building and maintaining our libraries and licensing most of our day to day essential services

So, local government is a big deal, but with little revenue and a giant work load.

Until recently, I was deep in the business of advocating for greater investment and action in digital and data at a local government level. I also had the opportunity to engage in some initiatives facilitated by the current government.

This included the development of the National Cities Performance Dashboard, the Smart Cities and Suburbs Program and the City Deals initiative. I also had a seat at the table of the Infrastructure Minister's Cities Reference Group.

But last year the Government dumped the Cities Performance Dashboard, a tool built as part of Australia's Smart Cities Plan (2016) with a view to help monitor the performance of not only the nation's largest cities, but also the performance of the Government's pinnacle program - City Deals.

And the Smart Cities and Suburbs program lasted 3 years, and resulted with at-best an 'average' success score and meaningful legacy (well that's my personal view anyway).

And then the Federal government's Cities Reference Group, left to languish - well, the Minister just stopped sending emails and convening the group. After three Ministers and only three meetings (over the span of 2 years), engaging industry in what was meant to be a leading 'Cities' agenda, just kind of vanished.

But now with a renewed excitement in City Deals, particularly on the back of the nations largest - the SEQ City Deal - there is much to spend. But, the performance monitoring platform now shut down.

And still no clear standardised and scalable digital and data blueprint to enable enhanced performance of the City Deals.

But why so many failed attempts and aborted efforts to support local government in performing to a higher level of productivity through investments in digital and data?

I wont try and answer that, but rather remain the eternal optimist.

The nation needs our cities, towns and communities. And local government needs our support more than ever. So can we really leverage the City Deals opportunity, and make it more than just a sum of the parts (point solution projects)?

Here are three ideas (asks) to bring things back on track, for a greater nation/city opportunity when it comes to digital, data and urbanism, through the City Deal program:

  1. Letting go - as much as the City Deal 'three tier of government commitment to co-funding' is the key talking point when it comes to the topic of collaboration - this is not collaboration! It's co-funding. It doesn't mean anyone works any differently. It doesn't mean there will be any better outcomes. Where is industry in this commitment, it just seems to be, yet again, more government-governance. We must aspire to broker more collaborative governance deals, and this should be the new/renewed model for brokering and delivering City Deals (more to come on collaborative governance at Urbanism.Live in the coming months).

  2. Adjusting the settings - as an extension to my collaborative governance call above, there are settings we can tweak. Whether it be the Infrastructure Australia assessment framework or other funding guidelines, there are adjustments we can make to ensure benefit flows to local government and increase investment in digital infrastructure and activating data use. Minimum data procurement and data sharing deals created, building 'data communities' around core thematic areas (such as housing, infrastructure and mobility) and prescribing a minimum level of performance against leading smart and sustainable communities standards (such as BIM, IoT, smart cities etc). These are just some of the settings we need to put in place for City Deals that will truly benefit local government.

  3. Measuring value - when writing our City Deal progress reports, we need to stop writing about the project. Less 'we did this', and more 'this was the value delivered'. But, this requires a value creation framework from the outset, to help collect and measure the benefit delivered. Such a benefit realisation framework can and must be embedded in the City Deals program.

Happy election season!

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