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Why LA 21 professionals are a rare and endangered species

Ransce Salan

Kogarah Council


A general perception exists that in order to facilitate organisational wide change and reorientate local government towards sustainability; ‘champions’ are a vital ingredient. Whilst anecdotal evidence tends to suggest that where Local Agenda 21 (LA21)/sustainability has been successful there is nearly always a champion of some description; the reliance on champions is fundamentally floored if we are seeking global change as a result of cumulative local actions. The perceived need for a champion creates the illusion that without a champion, LA21 is a vehicle without wheel nuts and sooner or later the wheels will fall off.

To date only a small number of so-called champions have emerged from a large number of local governments across Australia. Waiting and hoping for a champion is a long and tedious process. Most champions have a limited lifespan and wear the scars of past battles. The probability of simultaneously having one champion rising up in each of Australia’s 750 odd local Government areas with the power and influence required to change local government forever is unrealistic. World-wide this proposition becomes even more unrealistic. The search for champions is a limiting factor in the uptake and evolution of LA21.

A better formula than chance or luck is required if we are to change our current course and build sustainable towns, regions, states and countries and ultimately a sustainable globe.

‘May the 750 champion theory RIP (06/03/02)’

The challenge

In marketing terms sustainability is a highly desirable commodity, as very few people actually want an unsustainable future for their children. Many people work all their lives to provide a financially sound future for their children, yet ironically, are not prepared to pay a cost for the world which their children will inherit. Thus there is a great need to ensure that adequate provision is made today to provide a sustainable world that is worth living in tomorrow.

Local Agenda 21

LA21 is a process of change aimed at providing a sustainable future. To change organisations and communities requires not only, knowledge, political will, resources and funding but also a whole range of skills and professional expertise seldom found in local government.

Much of the work carried out to date on LA 21 has centred around the provision of education or developing better resources. Significant in roads have also been made in promoting the concept that we should all live more sustainably. A major shortfall in the equation has been in the areas of skills and professional expertise available to properly facilitate LA21 programs. Despite national commitments, changes to legislation, numerous conferences and seminars, there are still very few full-time positions in local government employed specifically to integrate sustainability into all council functions and lead the community to live more sustainably.

This paper looks at why LA 21 professionals are a rare and endangered species and offer some suggestions on how to see this new profession thrive rather than join the long list of Australia’s extinct species.

‘We have the technology to rebuild him bigger, better and able to changelocalgovernmentinasingle bound.’

Why are LA 21 professionals rare?

‘Rare’ is defined in the dictionary as ‘seldom found, uncommon, or unusual’. Within local government there exists only a small handful of full-time LA21 professionals and very few would debate the fact that they are low in numbers or seldom found. Many reasons exist as to why full-time LA21 professionals are currently a rare species in Australian local government. Three of the main reasons are:

  • because the skills and expertise required to facilitate LA21 are rarely found in local government
  • because the environment required to facilitate a holistic LA21 program is rare in local government
  • because the top down and bottom up commitment required for an effective LA21 program is rare in local government.

This paper discusses these aspects and possible solutions.

‘Oops! Now they are even rarer’

Skills and experience (seldom found, uncommon, or unusual)

The major responsibility for LA21 is often vested with an officer whose primary training is in a discipline such as town planning or environmental health/science. In many instances those entrusted with this important role are expected to change corporate culture and mobilise the community between food shop inspections or assessing development applications.

A broad range of skills is required to facilitate corporate and community wide change. These skills are rarely, if ever, possessed by a single person. Anecdotal evidence suggests that where LA21 has been most successful it has been supported by senior management or elected representatives and facilitated by professional staff. This coupling provides the powerbases that are needed to assist the LA 21 professional who often do not posses the status and influence required to bring about the change that is in the true spirit of LA21.

This senior executive \elected representative support has greatly assisted in overcoming many of the institutional barriers associated with implementing LA21. In some instances it has also provided LA21 professionals access to other professions within the organisation that are essential for educating and mobilising the community to live more sustainably.

Many of the skills and expertise required for the successful implementation of LA 21 are uncommon in many councils; particularly small rural shires with limited staff and access to resources. LA21 professionals do require change agent skills, conceptional and strategic thinking, a knowledge of economic, social and environmental issues, an understanding of all council operations, marketing and educational expertise.

A combination of all these elements is needed but rarely found.

The solution to the skills and experience dilemma is somewhat reliant on creating a demand for the profession through mandatory requirements. This will in turn create a demand for LA 21 professionals in all councils and drive academic institutions to develop courses specific to the unique set of skills required for LA 21 professionals. There is a great need for the development of an entirely new profession in local government, one which lies outside the whim of politics and chance and has the right to stand alone in all 750 local government areas.

Town Planning + Environmental Health + Management + Engineer + Recreation Services +PublicRelations + Change Agent + … etc = LA21 Professional

Environment (seldom found, uncommon, or unusual)

A culture of economic efficiency, roads, rates and rubbish characterise many local government authorities. In the pursuit of economic efficiency additional new responsibilities that impact on existing budgets are often resisted. This leaves little room for sustainability professionals with their ‘utopian’ pursuits that are difficult to monitor and have limited capacity to show up positive on the balance sheet. Despite sustainability being a designated core function in many states it is still very much the poorer cousin of economic considerations and the traditional functions of local government.

In recent years there has been a major upheaval in local government across Australia as a result of major reforms. Local government has undergone many changes since the early 1990s with the adoption of new managerial structures and practices, amalgamations and adoption of competition policy. LA 21 or sustainability is often viewed as just another ‘fad’ and is resisted by the ‘minders of the status quo’. Local government as a whole still has a way to travel before fully embracing the role of long term governance and the bravery associated with managing beyond the electoral cycle.

Currently the majority of local councils do not provide an environment, which is conducive to supporting LA21 professionals. Thinking globally and acting locally is a challenge that only the proactive and forward thinking authorities have advocated as their modus operandi.

The pursuit of sustainability will require additional funding, a change of professional conduct from all sectors in local government and political will.

What’s holding you back?

Commitment (seldom found, uncommon, or unusual)

Despite legislative changes many senior managers and elected representatives still do not have an understanding of sustainability, ecologically sustainable development (ESD) or LA 21. Under these circumstances it is of little wonder that LA 21 has not become the new way of government that it was intended to be.

A top down and bottom up holistic commitment is required if resources are to be reallocated away from roads, rates and rubbish to facilitate an effective LA21 programs. It is indeed ‘uncommon or unusual’ to find commitment at all levels. A weak link in the commitment chain to support a LA 21 professional will almost certainly ensure that the funding for a LA 21 professional is allocated elsewhere.

Top down + bottom up = Success

With commitment comes funding; if the commitment cannot be universally obtained from the large number of local authorities throughout Australia then central government intervention is required. Without high levels of commitment and compulsory education of elected representatives, LA21 will remain a profession, which is seldom found, uncommon or unusual.

Why LA21 professionals are endangered

Species that are endangered are species that are likely to become extinct unless factors threatening their abundance, survival or evolutionary development are removed. There are a number of internal and external factors, which threaten the abundance, survival and evolutionary development of LA21 professionals. The factors threatening the long-term survival of LA 21 professionals are discussed below:

Factors threatening abundance (what needs to be removed to stop extinction)

It has already been discussed that LA 21 professionals are rare or lacking abundance for a number of reasons. Both the demand and supply curves for LA 21 professionals needs to be increased and the true market rate for these professionals established to ensure that they are not poached by external entities or relegated back to the perceived core function of council when times are tough. It is important that LA 21 professionals become a stand-alone profession with a highly valued function in council.

The abundance of LA 21 professionals is also a factor of the definition of LA 21. In many instances the true spirit of LA 21 has not been properly advocated and many councils who have environmental programs or have developed strategic plans now believe that they are LA 21 councils. This perception has negated the need for additional resources to be allocated towards LA 21 or the employment of an officer to further sustainability.

The provision of financial incentives and/or accountabilities is an essential ingredient to help facilitate real change that will lead to a proliferation of LA 21 professionals. Incentives such as grants, levies, benefits to senior managers/councillors etc could be used to add impetus to the uptake of LA 21 and the development of this profession.

Roads + Rates + Rubbish + Sustainability = Core Functions

Factors threatening survival (what needs to be removed to stop extinction)

Major threats to long term survival of LA 21 professionals include:

  • changes in commitment due to staff and elected representation
  • changes in financial priorities and the infamous budget cuts
  • the ravages of change management in hostile environments
  • burnout and frustration
  • perception that LA 21 is a luxury item and will be the first thing to go if circumstances change.

A shift in institutional thinking is required to create cultures that support sustainability over the long term. In many situations LA 21 professionals are forced to lay low until the environment in which they exist changes back to a previous or better state. This phenomenon is not a problem unique to Australian LA 21 professionals and has been observed in the UK with the abolition of the Local Government Management Board who previously provided central government support for LA 21.

Until sustainability is truly embraced as a core function of good governance LA 21 professionals will remain a nomadic population commonly found seeking shelter from ever changing adverse political environments that threaten their existence.

‘Come back you coward, I’ll bite your knees off!’
Monty Python’s In Search of the Holy Grail

Factors threatening evolutionary development (what needs to be removed to stop extinction)

Evolutionary development needs to occur on many fronts for LA 21 to become a new way of managing local government. As an interim step there is a need to cultivate LA 21 professionals and make them an integral part of the local government landscape. In order for this to occur academic institutions need to develop courses specifically to meet the needs of this new profession. Currently the threat is that there is not the demand from local government for such professionals.

Government must also aspire to evolving management frameworks to support LA 21 professionals and remove the barriers that inhibit the uptake of long term, holistic, sustainable management practices.

In the longer term the evolution of the ‘minders of the status quo’ into LA 21 professionals is an imperative. Unless all professionals in local government adapt to this new mode of governance, necessity will dictate the path that is taken and we may well find ourselves captives within the future we did not desire.

‘The evolution of a new era’ from ‘minders of the status quo’ to ‘LA 21 professionals’

In summary

There is a great need to develop a whole new profession within the sphere of local government that is capable of implementing the ideologies associated with LA21. Reliance on champions, individuals or combinations of professionals and senior executives\ elected representatives is not a formula for long term success.

LA 21 professionals need to become a part of the landscape of local government and provisions made to ensure that factors threatening their abundance, survival and evolutionary development are removed. This paper has looked at why LA 21 professionals are a rare and endangered species and offered some suggestions on how to see this new profession thrive rather than join the long list of Australia’s extinct species.

News headlines( sometime in the future) … Sadly today the last LA 21 professional in captivity died after a long bout of bureaucracy finally took its toll, friends and relatives have said ‘that it a sad, sad day for humanity and our future generations who will mourn his loss for years to come’.


Mr Gary Eastman for his excellent cartoons.

About the author

Ransce Salan has a B App Sc (Environmental Health and is currently completing a Masters of Business Administration. He worked as Tweed Shires Local Agenda 21 Coordinator for 3 years during this time councils ‘Sustaining the Tweed’ program became a major initiative with 35 projects, a budget in excess of $600,000 and won the major prize at the Local Government Excellence in Environment Awards. Ransce is currently working as Sustainability Strategist with Kogarah Municipal council where he works across the organisation on sustainability related initiatives including the Solar Kogarah project.

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