Protecting and improving the wellbeing of communities is ultimately at the heart of everything the Central Desert Regional Council does.
“I think what sets us apart is our flexibility and adaptiveness to respond to local cultural issues, and to be able to work together with all our stakeholders, particularly territory and federal government, to be able to achieve or improve livability for those remote communities,” CEO Leslie Manda tells The CEO Magazine.
As an example, he points to US$1.3 million (A$2 million) in funding secured from the Australian Government to build youth sports and recreation facilities in Lajamanu and Yuendumu.
“That in itself is testament to the journey that we want to achieve, and how we work together with all levels of government to achieve that,” he reveals.
When Manda joined the Central Desert Regional Council as CEO in 2022, he brought with him valuable experience gained while working for the Central Australia Health Service, particularly in the areas of quality control and standards of services, as well as ensuring adequate governance structures.
When he arrived, Manda headed up the corporate services division and oversaw the information and communications technology (ICT) finance facilities.
“That entailed going through the whole process of making sure that we redesigned our ICT infrastructure so that it was fit for purpose,” he explains. “Understanding connectivity is always a challenge in remote areas.”
As is to be expected in remote areas, water security is a huge ongoing concern for the council. This water stress is driven by the knowledge that areas may have an inadequate water supply for growth within the community, limiting the ability to do things like build more homes to deal with overcrowding.
“We’ve had to work closely with power and water, advocate to the Minister for Local Government and the Minister for Resources to be able to fund particular projects,” Manda says.
“One of the successful outcomes over the past year was funding of up to A$28 million [US$18.5 million] for four years directed at the exploration of water and water-related projects to reduce water stress. And part of that has resulted in significant work being done for our remote communities.”
In the community of Yuelamu, a trial of hydro panels, which uses solar energy to power fans that extract water vapour out of the air, has also had exciting results. It is something that Manda sees as one facet in providing a solution to water stress.
These kinds of regional project developmental plans and the integration of innovative technologies are priorities for the Central Desert Regional Council, especially when looking to the future.
“Our intent is to improve livability across the board. So things like advocating for more housing, plus sporting facilities and activities for youth to keep them on country,” he says.
“What we’ve noticed with time is that the elders want the youth to be able to stay on country, but if there’s nothing for the youth to do and they’re not engaged, they tend to travel to other bigger locations or towns.”
In terms of the economic development and internal career opportunities within the Central Desert Regional Council, Manda points to the organization’s involvement as a service provider for the Community Development Program (CDP), administered through the National Indigenous Australians Agency.
“That means we are all about creating jobs for local Indigenous people and getting people upskilled,” he explains.
“With the new trial that was rolled out under that new CDP framework nationally, 25 percent of our funding has gone toward that particular project, and we’ll not only create more casual and permanent opportunities, we’ll also break those jobs down into areas of interest.”
That is key to the Central Desert Regional Council’s mission, according to Manda. “So it’s having that flexibility to be able to offer remote residents employment opportunities because, importantly, we understand that remote residents are transient in nature, and there’s competing cultural priorities that sometimes takes them away from the workforce,” he points out.
When asked what he’s most proud of achieving during his time with the council, Manda says it all comes down to resetting and building the culture within the organization.
“One of the key things that I heavily focus on is empowering my staff, as well as creating an environment for innovation. So there’s no idea that’s too left field that it can’t be explored,” he enthuses.
“Creating that appetite within the workforce to to always think outside of the box. I think that’s the biggest focus and one of the most significant successes as an outcome for this whole process.”