Being a local has its advantages. Local knowledge can go a long way towards making the right decision at the right time. For Matthew Stewart, it has proved to be a genuine asset in his role as General Manager of City of Canterbury Bankstown. He grew up in Bankstown, and has that priceless store of local knowledge to call on when circumstances demand.
However, he did wander away from Bankstown early in his career, joining the construction materials industry to work at Pioneer (now Hanson Construction Materials) as an above-ground mine manager. It was, he says, a nomadic lifestyle, but he learned a lot through experience in many locations with varied workforces to meet different markets.
But eventually, he was attracted back to Bankstown as a Special Project Engineer at the local council where he worked for several years, before spending a year at Penrith City Council. He returned to City of Canterbury Bankstown with a promotion to General Manager. In that role, he discovered a heavy bureaucratic culture in council, as he’d arrived with a more "commercial" approach to getting the job done. His approach would soon pay dividends for the council.
"The nice bit for me about landing at Bankstown was it was where I’d grown up and so I had some level of love and connection to the city. That put extra meaning into what I was doing."
"We’re public servants, and I’m putting the focus squarely back onto making sure the customers are at the heart of what we do."
In 2016, Bankstown and Canterbury councils were merged to create the most populous council in New South Wales, stretching across metropolitan Sydney from Tempe in the east to Liverpool in the west. It consists of more than 380,000 people, nearly 40,000 businesses, more than 600 parks, nine libraries, 1,000 kilometres of road and 10 million waste collections per year. Matthew was at the helm following this significant amalgamation, and instigated the transformation of the united council to operate more efficiently.
The council now has a Smart City program to drive its development, which has three prongs: Smart People, Smart Places and Smart Process. An integral part of Smart Process is digitising its operations and looking for opportunities to improve the customer experience.
"We use technology to provide a better experience for people," Matthew says. "For example, we’re rolling out GPS and cameras on our garbage trucks and streetsweepers so we can provide information to the people in our community, such as where the streetsweepers are going and videos of how their bin presentation causes pick-up issues for our trucks."
Multicultural melting pot
Canterbury Bankstown prides itself as one of Australia’s most culturally diverse regions, but with so many different backgrounds and cultures, it can sometimes be problematic to engage meaningfully with everybody, prompting the council to make use of technology in different ways.
"We’re piloting technology from a US startup where we use earpieces with community members that speak different languages, so we can have a conversation. The language barrier can be a challenge," Matthew admits. "But the greatest advantage is that we have a rich tapestry of views and contributions.
We as a city have grabbed onto our strength as an attractive place for people to invest, create jobs, to come and visit, and to live and work in. Our greatest attraction is our food – you can get any cuisine in the world here.
"There are a lot of inventive migrants and first-generation Australians here. We have a very high number of small startup businesses, with people coming from other places with wonderful entrepreneurial ideas. We’re a hotbed of these startups doing great things. That’s another of our strengths – all these little businesses incubating in our city and going on to become great companies."
Partners in business
As a larger organisation, the merged council can now engage more effectively with the local business sector through partnerships and local procurement of services. It’s a win–win for both parties, Matthew says.
"If we don’t have strong local supply chains, then we don’t have the jobs," he explains. "Businesses look to leave or don’t locate in our city without that ecosystem, the economic environment to not just survive, but also thrive. We put a lot of effort into that. We’ve got strength in advanced manufacturing.
We’re actively pursuing the new Bankstown-Lidcombe Hospital to secure health infrastructure and health service jobs. Council has worked with the Western Sydney University to build a vertical campus in the middle of the CBD. We’re doing everything we can to support advanced manufacturing and growing jobs, because that’s really where the rubber hits the ground for council and what it can do in that space to partner with business."
Five years after the merger, council was on a solid footing for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The most pleasing thing, Matthew says, was that staff were "calm, collected, and very quick to do what we needed to do".
"One thing I’ll say about COVID-19 is that, as we moved into lockdowns, we put a big focus on people’s wellbeing. We have about 260 team leaders and coordinators, and we supported them in connecting and talking with their people. It’s helped them to become more comfortable in leading people from this perspective, which is building up our culture in terms of engagement and satisfaction. That’s been a really positive thing."
Matthew is also driving a renewed commitment from council to local residents, who are, after all, its ‘customers’. It’s important that local residents see and value the efforts of council to improve their lives through greater amenity and better services," he says. "We’re public servants, and I’m putting the focus squarely back onto making sure the customers are at the heart of what we do, because our purpose is to deliver services to them, and without them, we don’t have a purpose to exist."
And it’s something he is incredibly proud to be a part of. "My job’s unique, with staff under me that I’m responsible for, and who I need to lead and inspire. But I’ve also got councillors above me – politicians who are elected to set the policies and the tone. I’m equally excited about working with them to chart the right strategic direction for the organisation and for the community. That’s like a whole second job, trying to deal with that," he points out.
"Every year when I look back, what I enjoy most is being able to positively influence great outcomes for my community. I say my community because I grew up in it, and I love it. My lifelong memories are all through Canterbury Bankstown. Being able to positively influence things here is the greatest joy I get from my job."
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