Regional organisations of councils (ROCs) have been a part of the Australian local government landscape for over seventy years and were once a prominent feature in all states. They have evolved into a wide range of forms, but their structure generally involves several common characteristics such as a contiguous geographic base and some degree of councillor engagement in their management. Unlike many other shared services arrangements, ROCs also tend to have a multi- purpose agenda, often taking a more strategic approach to broad regional issues.
Another part of the role of ROCs has been to overcome local government fragmentation in service delivery and regional management, especially in jurisdictions with large numbers of relatively small councils. However, in the past two decades, as many state governments around Australia have embarked on local government reform processes chiefly aimed at reducing the number of councils through amalgamation, ROCs themselves have been substantially restructured or have disappeared entirely.
Until recently, two jurisdictions on either side of the continent remained relatively untouched by these reform processes. NSW has seen a modest reduction in the number of councils to 152, still the largest number in Australia. Western Australia remains largely unchanged, with 139 councils – a very high degree of local governance fragmentation which is only partly explained by the state’s size and geography. Both states have also retained a large number of ROCs and other regional structures, though these have developed quite differently. Now both NSW and Western Australia are undertaking local government reform processes, though these are also taking different directions with contrasting implications for ROCs.
An examination of the current situation of ROCs in both states and the implications of the different reform paths forms the basis for this partnership project, jointly funded by the Northern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (NSROC) and the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government (ACELG), with the participation of the Department of Local Government in Western Australia. The project has involved a brief review of recent relevant research, a desktop audit of NSW and Western Australian ROCs and interviews with a small group of ROC CEOs and other stakeholders in both states, examining their governance structures, financial models and range of functions, as well as the relationship between these.