Now you're a councillor

Now you're a councillor

A site for women councillors in Victorian local government

Getting a working knowledge…

Noelene Duff has been CEO of the City of Whitehorse since 2000, and it’s a leadership role she continues to find fascinating, ever- changing and satisfying.  Noelene is a strong supporter of women’s participation, and was a National Ambassador for the National Year of Women in Local Government in 2010 and has recently been named as one of the Top 50 Public Sector Women in Victoria.

You are the Chief Executive Officer of the City Whitehorse – how would you describe your job?

Being a CEO in local government is a fantastic role, running a large business that has community service as its core. I manage one of the largest metropolitan councils in Victoria, am responsible for over $2 billion of assets on behalf of a diverse, multicultural community, provide a large platform of services to the community and I work with a great team of dedicated, professional people, staff and councillors. I love working with the huge variety of challenges that every day presents!

Finances and budgets can be a daunting prospect for a new councillor, where should she start?

Councillors will need to gain a strong working knowledge of their council budget very early in their term. Depending on the competency level of your financial knowledge, this will require an investment of time on your part.

Some early reading will give you a head start – browse through the front section (the descriptive section before the numbers) of the last annual report and budget documents for an overview of your council and how it supports your community. Have a look at the financial performance indicators and highlight any actions outlined in the prior year financial audit. Induction briefings from the executive of the council will include all the basics and will explain the current financial status of the council. If there are concerns about the financial status of your city, then time, and explanation of the balance sheet and financial ratios will provide you with a high level view of its financial performance.

It is important to ask questions and feel confident that you are receiving a full response. Approaching your councillor representatives on your Audit Committee may also be useful as they will have had experience with the financial reports. Also ensure that you are regularly receiving monthly financial reports and more detailed quarterly reports. These reports will reveal trends that you may want to monitor.

Once the new councillor has grasped the big picture in terms of council finances, the next step is to take a detailed look at the budget. What would you say are the key elements to the budget?

The budget is the means to delivering the service and capital priorities and year one of the council term provides an excellent framework through the Council Plan process to do just that. Do you have a clear picture of what your city needs to provide? – Look at the evidence from community feedback, if necessary, then further community consultations will provide this input and lead to the framework for the plan. Next you need to know what resources you require to achieve the goals set out in the plan, i.e. the budget.

It is important to understand the lead times that are required to implement new initiatives, particularly if they are capital initiatives, but also service opportunities. Planning time is required to ensure that the details of any new project have been properly thought out, consulted on and appropriately budgeted.

No doubt there will be many more wants and needs than you can resource, so a process of prioritising will be required. It is a complex process and you should be asking questions and reviewing information. If you are a “not very financial” person, ask for information in a visual format that is accessible to you and ask for one-on-one briefings until you understand. You will gain confidence in the information and your knowledge will grow through this learning exercise.

You may find that other councillors have a higher financial knowledge and you can draw on their understanding as well. Every year presents different challenges in council and changing requirements, including increased reporting, from other authorities and the Victorian Government. Rest assured it will become an easier process as your knowledge grows, you ask more questions and really gain a solid working knowledge of your council’s budget.

Why should women be involved in local government – and in the budget processes?

When I commenced in my current role as CEO in 2000 there were 11 women CEO’s; today there are only 13! It remains a similar scenario for women councillors, with some slightly better improvements in the past decade. As a sector we have done some considerable thinking about this issue, conducted surveys and reviewed strategies and interventions. The Victorian State Government through the Minister Natalie Hutchins has initiated a Ministerial Round Table and her department is undertaking some excellent work to promote new approaches to promoting women’s participation in the local government sector. I have participated in both of these exercises and believe that they will add momentum to the process of changing participation of women.

Do you have any advice from your experiences as a CEO which might be useful for new women councillors?

There are always stray bullets in local government, so it is vital to ensure that you are ahead of the game, anticipate the play and work in a preventative manner to avoid them. There are times that we all feel that we have hit a barrier, but that will often mean that we need to push harder! I think it is vital that women do feel that they can express themselves in the workplace and feel safe, valued and offered opportunities to grow and develop. However, we also need to grab the opportunities in front of us and sometimes take some risks. I have found that sometimes in taking that risk that it has pushed me to learn and challenge myself even more. I don’t feel bruised as I have had fantastic career opportunities and I work in a very supportive environment at Whitehorse and in the local government sector.

However I do believe that we are a very hard working sector, contributing on a daily basis to developing strong, healthy communities. I think we are generally too shy to “blow our own trumpet”, but there is much to celebrate and we need to improve our promotion of the positive contribution that we collectively make. For example, we would not have Olympic heroes if they had not been able to join the local team and use the facilities that are provided. There are plenty of heroes amongst the local government community and perhaps we need to celebrate their contribution more often that we do!! I put out the challenge to new Councillors to share in that celebration and be strong ambassadors to promote the good things local government do at the local level.