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Local Government: Welcome to the sharp end of the regulatory knife!

4 March 2024

News and media


Guest editorial by David MacLennan, CEO City of Vincent and Chair WA Chapter NRCoP and Gregory Abood, CEO AELERT (Australasian Environment and Law Enforcement Regulators Network).

Being a regulator in local government can be a tough gig. 

We say that after spending most of our careers working on regulatory issues at various levels of government. Between us, we have over 50 years of combined regulatory experience and we take our hats off to those regulators in local government working hard every day to protect our interests.  

Being a regulator in local government can also be very rewarding. On any given day you might be: 

  • Approving a Taylor Swift concert for 90,000 people and having to decide on the maximum noise levels! 
  • Securing a building which has burnt down and released asbestos into the atmosphere 
  • Responding to a burst sewer pipe with raw sewage spilling into a local park 
  • Having to permanently remove a dangerous dog from their owners after an attack 
  • Managing contamination of soil and water of a burst fuel tank at the local service station  
  • Approving major new property developments 
  • Inspecting a restaurant after reports of food poisoning  
  • Responding to illegal dumping of waste in the street  

Part of the difference of regulation at the local government level as compared to the state or national level relates to scale and proximity. 

Regulation at national and state levels often relates to large economies, industry sectors, professions and groups of citizens. Regulators are often dealing with well-resourced big businesses and professional lobbyists who are able to engage in great detail on regulatory issues which impact them.   

Regulation at the local government level often deals with smaller scale business activity and investment around land and property development. One is working much closer to the regulated parties: often smaller businesses and individuals. The economy wide impact won’t be as large – but the regulator’s decision can be life or death for the small business.      

More than at any other level of government, local government level regulation is a face-to-face exercise with members of the community who may be trying to start a small business or build their forever home.   

Anatomy of the regulatory knife  

Robin Ryde, former Chief Executive of the UK National School of Government and co-director of ANZSOG’s Executive Fellows Program, uses the analogy of the blunt end and the sharp end of the regulatory knife.  

National or state governments usually hold the handle of the regulatory knife in a particular sector.  

A minor legislative or policy change might look like a small movement at the blunt end of the regulatory knife. 

But for the local government regulator at the sharp end, or tip – it can be a bigger and sometimes painful change to implement or enforce compliance.  

Regardless of one’s regulatory professional and technical skills and expertise – a local government regulator’s success or failure depends on their ability to juggle several sharp knives at once. 

And they require the highest-level negotiation and communication skills in dealing with members of the local community.   

Challenges of being a regulator in local government 

In late 2023, AELERT surveyed local government agencies across Australia to find out more about what it means to be a local government regulator in order to serve them better in the network. About 70% of AELERT’s member agencies are local governments with staff who practice environmental and non-environmental regulation. 

110 local government agencies took part in the AELERT survey. Agencies who participated included those with 1 regulator to those with over 100. Five key themes were identified in the survey:  

  • Isolation, and feeling a disconnect between local government and state government regulatory activities.  Respondents wanted to see more collaboration and cooperation across government agencies. 
  • Budget constraints and resources, including access to resources to build and maintain operational procedures, frameworks, policy, and tools that support regulatory practice.  
  • Workload and work spread which results in a domination of reactive work that is spread across a broad range of regulatory subjects. 
  • Regulatory capabilities of staff, including filling vacant roles with capable staff. This is not helped by outdated laws and legislative frameworks. 
  • Lack of practical operational support and limited regulatory focus and proactivity.   

When asked in the survey to identify the key staff capability need for further development and resourcing, three key areas were identified: 

  • Legislative knowledge and authorised officer training 
  • Investigation and legal procedures 
  • Stakeholder and community engagement 

Connecting and supporting regulators in local government 

NRCoP and AELERT are working together to connect regulators in local government to each other and to their state and national peers. Building these connections mitigate against regulatory isolation, as well as minimising the material and opportunity costs associated with reinventing the wheel or working alone.   

Connection gives regulatory agencies and its people the necessary awareness of where their own agency is positioned on a capability spectrum and enables them to learn from others. Connection makes regulators more accountable to their peers and gives them the confidence to operate and grow as world class regulators. Every unit of growth is a step towards building our collective capability. This makes the broader regulatory system stronger and more resilient to change. 

Access to a structured regulatory officer capability framework, capability assessment tools and professional development programs give staff and their managers a systematic and efficient path to building capability that is relevant to their jobs. Organisational maturity tools can also be a useful way for regulatory agencies to know where they are at and where they need to focus their maturity and growth efforts. Day-to-day supports such as sharing resources via communities of practice, working groups and a well-stocked resources library are practical ways to keep local government regulators connected and supported by their state and federal government regulatory peers. 

Local government regulators as the invisible superheros 

So why would anyone want a career as a regulator in local government? 

Well, regulators in local government can, and often do, act as invisible super heroes in your community: making sure your food is safe to eat; your buildings are structurally sound; the local pool water is safe to swim in; there is disability access where required; mosquitoes near water bodies are controlled; carparking is available; you can get approval to build your dream home; and you can turn your business idea into reality. 

As a local government regulator you can do this multiple times in a day.  

So, despite the stress and complexity, you and your local community can thrive and prosper at the sharp end of the regulatory knife.