The mood is much improved at Tenterfield Shire Council (TSC) where staff have reported an overall improvement in culture and engagement of 30 per cent, earning council the prestigious Macquarie University Voice Project 2019 Change Challenge Award in the small-to-medium business category.
TSC won the award over not only participating councils but also private organisations and not-for-profits for the greatest measurable change in work practices and outcomes.
The project measures staff attitudes through anonymous surveys to provide a starting point. Results are then contrasted with surveys conducted at the end of the process, in TSC's case eight months later. TSC's result is considered exceptional, given that a 10 per cent improvement or more is statistically rare.
"A real turnaround story," one of the judges commented, "from toxic, dysfunctional organisation with low trust to now high trust."
The staff survey covers many aspects of work life. While TSC's 'work safety' and 'role clarity' aspects were green-lighted in the starting survey, indicating a satisfaction rating of more than 80 per cent, 10 other aspects reported low satisfaction, at less than 50 percent.
These included technology and facilities (in the property section), leadership, recruitment & selection, cross-unit cooperation, involvement, rewards & recognition, performance appraisal and career opportunities (in the participation section), and wellness (in the peace section).
These have all climbed to at least moderate (50-80 per cent) in the final survey, if not high satisfaction (over 80 per cent).
Council's chief executive Terry Dodds considers the exercise the best achievement so far of his 18 months at the helm, although he said it will be an ongoing continual improvement process.
"The outcome is a more engaged and committed workforce," he said.
This is the first time TSC has participated in The Voice Project after Mr Dodds saw a need for it on his arrival. He has worked in three other councils who have joined the initiative but with poor outcomes due to a lack of commitment in two and an average result in the other.
Now as chief executive he was in a position to carry through the ideals of the project, and the results speak for themselves.
There was a 96 per cent participation rate in completing the surveys from council's 108.2 FTEs (full-time equivalent staff), and there's already been a response to the 174 comments submitted. Mr Dodds said the feedback on the comments was distributed to all staff as he has no idea who made which comment.
"The whole idea is for the results to remain anonymous, otherwise the level of participation would have likely been less."
The results have been collated by the university to allow managers to address the statistical results of their own departments, for areas of continual improvement.
"Some things just can't be fixed due to our small scale, but in some areas our small scale helps us," Mr Dodds said.
The primary concerns revealed in the starting surveys were communication and inclusiveness (or lack thereof). This has been largely addressed through debrief meetings at each of the depots, the library, and council chambers following each monthly council meeting.
"So everybody knows what happened at the council meetings, and what's expected," Mr Dodds said.
Two major initiatives to come out of the exercise are that every staff member -- whether they work in the field or in management -- knows what was discussed at the meeting, and that everyone has collaborative input through the Monthly Operational Report which shows the status of every council section and how each section is progressing.
The Monthly Operational Report is a public document which councillors also use to identify areas of concern, ask questions, or make suggestions.
Given the spectacular results achieved through TSC's first involvement with The Voice Project, Mr Dodds said there will probably be an interval to cement in new habits before reassessing progress in another two years.
In any large group there's always room for improvement. That's human nature. So we won't be resting on our laurels whatsoever.TSC chief executive Terry Dodds
"In any large group there's always room for improvement. That's human nature. So we won't be resting on our laurels whatsoever."
Two out of three staff members reported major gains in the area of internal communication, indicating that council is on the right path but still has a way to go, Mr Dodds said.
"Overall such a big improvement is making it easier to manage the organisation. We're trying hard to constantly improve how we work together, which makes a better outcome for the community."
While he conceded it's not possible to always please everyone, Mr Dodds said that feedback from staff showed they are happier with how their work's going, that they feel more connected and that the organisation is better aligned with its goals.
Outgoing state representative Thomas George has already sent a letter of congratulations.
"This is certainly recognition for the continued loyalty from the team," Mr George said.
There will be an award presentation in Sydney next month at a date yet to be advised, although with bushfire cleanups, water worries and other responsibilities Mr Dodds said it would be nice to be able to accept the award in person but depends on how the business is at the time.