Kathryn Parker
Principal Analyst, Corporate Planning & Strategy
Northern Beaches Council

Tell us about how you started your career in local government?

I started in local government as a strategic planner in 2004 at Warringah Council after a successful career in the private sector consulting in economics local area studies, regional development and university community development research. Working in local government has enabled me to successfully work fulltime and in a professionally challenging role while raising two children to adults.

So as an economist, I branched into local government strategic and corporate planning with additional tertiary qualifications gained along the way. I have a Bachelor and Masters in Economics (Macquarie & Sydney University), and Graduate Diploma in Education and Urban and Regional Development (Sydney University)

I moved to Manly Council in 2008 after a six month break from local government to take up their corporate strategic planner role; and can’t believe that I’m still working in local government! 

In this, while managing a small team, I then took on bigger roles as principal analyst corporate planning and performance and then also public officer (2013 onwards). I reported directly to the General Manager in this position as this was due the centrality of the integrated planning and reporting framework in the council. 

From 2016 , as a result of the merger and creation of the Northern Beaches Council, I’ve continued in my role as principal analyst in Corporate planning and this now reports through the Transformation Executive Manager to the Chief Executive Officer. 

What experiences, achievements or milestones have you been most proud of during your time working in the sector?

The last couple of years since the merger have been the busiest as we’ve navigated through much organisational change as a result of the merger and extensive community consultation on a wide variety of plans and strategies. I’ve been super busy for the last 2 years preparing new 3 Operational Plans , and new integrated community strategic plans with three stages of community engagement, workshops, surveys and now a new Delivery Program for the new Council. 

I’ve had enjoyed a wide variety of experiences in local government particularly independent and team contributions to place plans or masterplans, local environmental plans and development control plans, strategic, corporate and community plans. 

I’ve independently and as a part of a team prepared and written reports, plans and strategies; and enjoyed a wide variety of community engagement, and facilitated community workshops on a range of issues from transport, housing, development controls, environmental protection and governance. I’ve gained skills complementary and practical to my qualifications, and worked with and presented to a wide variety of people from accountants, engineers, environmental activists to our labourers, grounds / parks staff and cleaners during the years on plans, strategies and events. 

What benefits have you enjoyed from your membership? Have you benefited from participation in any LG Professionals, NSW events or professional development opportunities?

I’ve benefited from LG Professionals especially networking opportunities through the Integrated Planners network. This was especially when I was managing corporate and integrated planning for the former Manly Council and needed to understand what other Councils implemented in terms of legislative changes for our community and corporate plans. 

I also benefited from the overseas New Zealand scholarship exchange as this enabled me to tour, observe and learn about the New Zealand local government community development policies and merger proposals and how they had gone. I was able to visit north island councils such as Auckland, Wellington councils and distinguish benefits or otherwise of forced mergers and enhanced regional capacity. This has helped my understanding of what was likely to happen during the merger we experienced here in the Northern Beaches Sydney.

From your perspective, what are some of the challenges the local government sector is facing and how do you think the sector should respond?

The major challenges for local government are related to our declining revenue base in the face of increasing local community wants and needs (especially in Sydney and more pronounced in regional areas). This mainly due to us being a creature of the NSW government - via its changing policies affecting our landuse, environment, transport, rates, revenue and duplicating legislation and regulations. THese impact on our local communities, and our ability to deliver to meet their needs and we have real decreasing funding sources and options. 

The LG sector needs greater ability to seed, set up and empower local communities to take on some of the responsibilities or functions that it does not have the resources to undertake for ever itself – particularly in the community sector where we should be able to partner with NGOs or the private sector more to deliver services that the community, places or economic needs are delivered (e.g Meals on Wheels, health related, community counselling, arts and cultural experiences, youth services, and childcare). We should be learning more about how comparative local government e.g in the UK or USA has begun to ‘outsource’ or deliver differently with community providers.

A related challenge is that mergers are supposed to bring our communities more efficiently run organisations and operations over a wider local population base. The reality is that real savings are difficult to achieve and main options are through the loss of duplicate senior staff on contracts. Most staff, however, have to be retained for 3 years due to the award provisions – so its difficult up-front to get savings in labour efficiencies; and contracting out services to the private sector is simply a shift of resources from one area of expenditure to another. As well, savings through asset and capital sales (e.g buildings, excess or suplus land or other assets) may take time to achieve; these are often difficult for communities to understand arguments to retain, sell or lease or business case propositions. Newly created and merged councils should be able to channel resources regionally as best needed from respective state and federal agencies and are best placed to meet local needs. Other agencies and grant programs should be divested to newly merged entities.

Another challenge for local government is retaining experienced staff in times of change, mergers and redundancies. Related is also the need for succession planning for new generations of committed local government employees, and upskilling and creating long term LG careers for future employees that enable people to learn and experience different work opportunities during their careers . A key related but separate challenging issue is also getting more women into senior executive and management positions to reflect the number of women in the local workforce, work with councillors, community and business members.

Another issue is the need for smarter technologies and working options and offices. The investment in IT and pace of change is so rapid, and the community members expects local government to be at the forefront of doing its business better and smarter; however, we have some way to go in this as we are still clunky needing more simpler online services, communications and working options. e.g dial in meetings, tele-commuting, easy and flexible working conditions are still needed in the sector and council.

What is your best piece of advice to young professionals looking to build their career in the sector?

You never can properly plan your career as many things change, or don’t go to plan. And I’m a planner! There are many things that are unexpected, and happen to you and others around you, but you have to be ready and able to learn, and what is certain, is that nothing stays the same … so:
  • Keep your qualifications up to date,
  • Get mentors that can guide you, 
  • Ask for help and assistance, 
  • Be prepared to move jobs or locations, 
  • Get different and related experience, and 
  • Always ask to do more or help out when asked. 
  • Get to know people in other teams in your organisation or others, and 
  • Don’t be afraid to change, and learn and accept a challenge.