Marianne Cavanagh of Whanganui District Council reports from her Overseas Manager Exchange in Queensland, Australia - sponsored by JLT

Blog 1: From Whanganui District to Western Downs Regional Council.

My exchange to Western Downs Regional Council began by flying in from snowy Queenstown to the Sunshine Coast to attend the annual conference of the Local Government Managers Association of Queensland. Bit of a change in temperature!

Jodie Taylor, who is the General Manager of Community and Liveability, was there to meet me and we made our way down from the Sunshine Coast to Western Downs - with some sightseeing of golden sand beaches on the way. (Noosa beach photo)

Western Downs Regional Council is based in the town of Dalby. Currently the region is facing a severe drought - 40% of the district was officially drought declared this week. There is very little green to be seen and it brings the kangaroos in – it's not uncommon to see them in your backyard and down the street.

There is certainly no shortage of land in the region for development - the Western Downs region is the same size as the North Island - even though the population is only 34,000.

The Council amalgamated and went from 5.5 councils to one. There are now six town centres in the region – and 99 communities.

The first night here we went to a wonderful community event in the town of Chinchalla called One Long Table. (photo) It is similar to a festival of cultures with many food stalls and entertainment, and literally one long table down the main street to bring people together. The town’s strong sense of community was evident.

The Council meet once a month and each meeting is held in a different town in the region, which is a great way of encouraging a sense of community - despite the distances.

Each month on the morning of the Council meeting the Executive Team don their aprons and cook breakfast for the town’s depot staff – the ones looking after the roads, water, parks and open spaces, and the local dingo catcher! (photo)

This is a great initiative by the Executive Team – not just seeing the workers who are out and about in the region but also removing the sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ - which is an example of some great work place culture initiatives undertaken by the Council.

Blog post 2: Drought

A current issue facing the Western Downs Regional Council, as well as many others in Australia is water - namely the lack of it! Dry is an understatement to describe the land in the Darling Downs. I've been lucky enough to be getting out and about around the region as we visit many town centres. The current landscape is so different to what I am used to in Whanganui - and wider New Zealand. I'm used to rolling hills and lots of greenery, cows and sheep grazing their days away.

Here the stock are hungry…they are standing on dust and eating dry hay or random clusters of equally dry crops. Fields and verges get covered in kangaroos and wallabies who are also looking for food (see photo). Flowers are sparse, green grass just doesn't exist...unless residents water patches around their homes. However, with water restrictions in place this can only be done by hand at certain times of the day - and it costs.

Forty percent of the region has been drought declared. Even the rivers and creeks have dried up (see photo). The Condamine River is the main river that runs through the Western Downs Region. It is also where the water supply comes from. It flooded in 2015 but it's currently running dry, which is a sparse contrast (see photo).

An additional impact of restricted water availability is the limitation on town beautification. Lack of greenery and plants and flowers can make it hard for Council to have the town centres looking attractive and welcoming. Recently WDRC received consent from the State Government to drill a bore in one of their town centres to access artisan water - recognising the need to have access for town supply, and to allow for further development opportunities - without water it's hard to encourage people or business to come to town. Unfortunately, the bore drill hit granite and further options for sites arenow being investigated. Other initiatives that don't reply heavily on water include seating and shade areas, sculptures and lighting.

Blog 3: Example of good practice – creating a united and positive workplace culture

Creating and maintaining a positive organisational culture can be hard at the best of times, but even more so when your employees are so widely dispersed around 34,000 square km. Western Downs Regional Council covers a land equivalent in size to the North Island in New Zealand. With over 700 employees based across six different towns, the Executive Team have their work cut out for them to not only be present and engaged with their teams but also to lead a successful organisation.

There Council has various initiatives in place - all working towards their vision of “an innovative team – connected locally; united regionally”.

Council meetings are rotated around the towns each month. This means a fair bit of travel for the Executive Team (as they all attend each Council meeting) and elected members, but it also gives them the opportunity to engage with their teams at each centre, as well as engaging with the different communities.

The morning of the Council meeting the Executive team are up early cooking breakfast for the Council's depot workers (see photo). While I was there the Executive Team were also travelling to each town to present employee long service recognition awards. These were presented to employees who had worked for Council for 10, 20, 25, 30, and in one case 45 years. It was an acknowledgment of their service to Council and their community (see photo). It was evident that having the Executive Team present the long service medals and put on morning teas and lunches at the various centres meant a lot to the employees. It was a team commitment to attend these ceremonies in the six different towns – acknowledging over 215 staff by the end of the week.

Another great initiative undertaken is the We Are WDRC Awards. This is the Western Downs Regional Council’s version of the Oscars. Nominated staff attend a black tie event, and tickets are scarce and sought after – making the event even more prestigious. As well as recognising and awarding these staff members, it is a way to promote pride in their Council and the contribution they have made (see photo).