Thursday, February 29, 2024

Reasons for optimism as La Niña fades

Peter Suchting.

Council innovations are helping communities adapt to a changing climate says industry veteran, Peter Suchting.

Recently the Bureau of Meteorology issued a cautious update suggesting an easing of La Niña might be around the corner.

For communities still dealing with storm or flood-damaged homes, sodden soils and full catchments, this is welcome news. In September last year, the Insurance Council of Australia estimated the combined insurance damage bill had already reached $5.92 billion from La Niña-related storms and flooding along the East coast in 2021 and 2022.

For councils, custodians of billions of dollars in community-owned infrastructure and assets who have been dealing with the impact of three years of unseasonably wet weather, it will be time to take stock and plan ahead.

The last few years have challenged Australian councils like never before. At the end of 2019 we were just beginning to appreciate the threat the season’s bushfires would pose. Few could have predicted the devasting floods or global pandemic that followed. Throughout, local governments have been on the front lines.

What attracted less attention than it should have, was how well they responded. As often happens in times of crisis, councils stepped up and took the lead in helping their communities to meet the challenges, pull together and move forward.

Behind the scenes too, council administrators responded by investing in innovation projects to increase the resilience and agility of their operations, streamline manual processes and duplication and allow their people to work more effectively.

Storms lash the Gold Coast during a wet La Nina season in Queensland.

But, while La Niña might be fading, councils are still facing significant headwinds, including rising costs, flat revenues and staffing challenges. On top of these there is the fatigue felt after three years spent in ‘crisis mode’. 

Fortunately, there is good news. I see reasons for optimism almost daily in my conversations with Australian council leaders. I’ve been in and around local governments for two decades and rarely have I seen so much activity and innovation.

The ability to work anywhere, anytime and from any device has become the new normal for office-based teams, but it is arguably more important for those in the field; many Australian councils obviously operate over large areas of land.

In Bass Coast Shire in Victoria, the ability of field teams to interact with head office in real-time is helping them to be more efficient, lower costs and environmental impacts, and fix reported problems sooner, delivering a better experience for the community.

Others, like City of South Perth in Western Australia, are moving more services online. This means residents and visitors can engage, whether for a planning issue, rubbish complaint or permit application, at a time that suits them, not just during council’s business hours.

The digital transformation happening within councils also means residents’ requests no longer trigger a flurry of emails, potentially leading to duplicated effort, but can instead be captured in a single workflow that integrates across different systems and departments.

Councils like Clarence Valley Council in New South Wales are investing in new asset management systems to improve maintenance and fix problems before they happen. Since even a relatively small council can be responsible for billions of dollars in assets, the potential is clear.

And, in Queensland, Moreton Bay Regional Council is using cameras attached to its waste collection vehicles and linked to sophisticated image recognition technologies to help effortlessly identify potholes on local roads and dispatch teams to fix them.

The common thread between these examples is cloud technology or more precisely its modern iteration, Software as a Service (SaaS). Without getting too technical, switching to SaaS is akin to going from buying music on CDs to listening to it via services like Spotify.

One benefit is that councils are no longer required to buy, build and maintain data centres or reliant on them as a single-point-of-failure when the unexpected happens. This not only reduces the risk of cyber-attacks, it can also reduce downtime during severe weather events.

The company I work for learned this lesson the hard way. We were already a 20-year-old successful Australian software company when the tragic Brisbane floods of 2011 almost cut us off from our data centres – and customers. The experience led us to reinvent ourselves.

Of course, unlike rain, the money to do this doesn’t fall out of the sky.

But in a first of its kind economic analysis in 2021, researchers from IBRS and Insights Economics identified a potential saving of $8.4 billion over ten years, equivalent to almost half of the sector’s total income from property rates over 12 months, if councils ditched their datacentres and switched to cloud-based platforms as we did.

In sector after sector – government, higher education, health and aged care, property and infrastructure, financial and corporate services – the economists found the hard financial benefits of moving to SaaS far outweighed the cost.

The biggest savings came from reductions in the cost of buying and maintaining IT infrastructure, lower compliance costs and increased labour productivity and employee retention. They also found indirect benefits, like reduced energy costs and lower carbon emissions.

While the Bureau last week was reluctant to predict weather patterns beyond Autumn, it is clear our climate is changing and councils are at the forefront of efforts to adapt. Thankfully, thanks to the technologies available to us today, they’ve never been in a better place to do that and that’s reason for optimism. Here’s to a few more sunny days ahead!

Peter Suchting is a 20-year veteran of the local government sector and currently industry director with Australian software company TechnologyOne.

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