The size and unique location of Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula means that residents and visitors enjoy an ecosystem of variety virtually unmatched around the country. Bays and ocean beaches offer the best of both worlds for swimmers; wineries and adventure activities keep landlubbers entertained; and an abundance of camping grounds and rental accommodation make it an ideal location for staycations.
With such a range of experiences on offer, the Mornington Peninsula Shire Council has a unique role to play among its contemporaries. Tourists and residents alike must be considered when making any decisions, particularly regarding infrastructure and local businesses that rely on tourism.
And then there are the increasingly severe natural disasters, from fires to storms, that have affected the area in recent years. There are risks to take and tough decisions to make, which was why, in 2018, the council appointed John Baker as CEO.
“The past four years have been some of the most challenging in local government in a generation.”
“The past four years have been some of the most challenging in local government in a generation,” Baker acknowledges. “We’ve gone from bushfires and picking up the pieces in the aftermath to some of the worst storms we’ve ever experienced down here in the Shire. And then of course, COVID-19, so it’s been a huge challenge for a public sector organization.”
Despite this barrage of ruinous events, Baker says he’s incredibly proud of the way the council tackled the challenges – and managed to flourish in spite of them.
“It’s now in a far better place than it was when I took on the role,” he reveals. “We’ve grown so much in so many regards.”
On accepting his new role, Baker was fresh from the United Kingdom, where he’d been a partner with KPMG and later Ernst & Young. “At E&Y, I led the local government practice across the entire UK,” he says. “I oversaw some of the largest transformation projects, such as London Ventures, which helped reduce costs and improve effectiveness through major programs in cities like Aberdeen and Edinburgh.”
When the Mornington Peninsula role came up, Baker jumped at the opportunity. His time as a consultant on huge, transformative public projects meant that he could hit the ground running.
“My skills held me in pretty good stead to help the organization grapple with the issues it faced,” he adds. “There was a big gap in the budget which needed to be addressed, which I’ve managed through a variety of efficiency programs.”
But the upkeep of the council is a never-ending story. Over the next five years Baker has a number of projects in various stages of advancement. Key among these is deliberative democracy, which seeks to give the people of Mornington Peninsula a louder voice.
“It’s a highly sophisticated focus group,” he stresses, “where a citizens’ panel of 43 people each year tests ideas and concepts designed to improve the Peninsula. We’re a leading local authority in that concept.”
There are also moves afoot to increase the level of transparency in the council.
“Our budget process is one of the most transparent in Victoria,” Baker says. This was achieved by disaggregating the budget into a range of silos including opex, capex, and fees and charges.
“In fact, we’ve been asked to speak at a number of national conferences on this,” he continues. “We have a public meeting on each element, and gradually we build our budget with community input.”
In the past, the council budget might get up to 100 submissions from residents. With the new method in place, that’s grown.
“Our budget process is one of the most transparent in Victoria.”
“We had just shy of 3,000 contributions to our budget process from a whole variety of different groups and individuals,” Baker notes. “It’s far more transparent than anything that’s been done elsewhere and we’re very, very proud of that.”
The Mornington Peninsula is a community, and a tightly knit one at that. “We know that 70 percent of people that work on the Mornington Peninsula live there as well,” Baker says. “We’re part of that community, that family, but maintaining connection with that community is a challenge during an event like COVID-19.”
The effective use of technology has helped bridge that gap, but Baker says there’s still a long way to go. “The way we engage with our community is what sets us apart from other local authorities,” he adds. “Much of what we do down here is configured for our community.” So satisfied is the council with his work that in June, Baker’s contract was extended for another four years.
Despite all the change, Baker is making sure the council remains aligned and focused on its key values of integrity, courage, openness, respect and excellence. “By locking step with those, I believe we’ll be able to achieve what we’ve set out to do.”