When Rachel Chambers became mayor of the recently amalgamated North Burnett Regional Council in 2016 she realised that it was “sink or swim” so she decided to swim.
From a small business background, Chambers found herself the most senior elected official of an organisation with around $1.1 billion in assets, an annual budget of around $50 million and 10,000 ratepayers across six small population centres.
It began a steep curve of learning about asset management, a journey Chambers embraced and is still passionate about a year after leaving her six year tenure as mayor for a role as head of an industry association in Queensland.
“We really need to upskill our elected officials and I became a huge advocate of that,” she says.
“Elected officials are in a unique position. You have engineers who are experts and finance people who are experts and professional risk people and then you’ve got an elected official who just has to be operating without a criminal record, and that is the person making the final decision.
“So there’s a huge knowledge gap in that and a potentially high level of risk, so upskilling has to be a big focus.”
Chambers emerged from her time as mayor with some strong views on asset management. Her over-arching perspective is that asset management needs a balance between the recommendations of finance, engineering, elected representatives and other stakeholders.
“There are a lot of competing priorities between efficiency, value, cost and risk, and then the political factors,” she says.
“Ultimately, we need to get together to have big discussions which factors everything in, and we have to get much better at predicting what assets we need and understanding that their future purpose may be different at the time they were built.”
Chambers gives the example of town halls in regional Queensland. Historically, these served a major social purpose, providing a venue for almost every wedding reception in the region.
“These halls don’t serve this purpose anymore, so who is looking into what purpose they are serving now?” she says.
“Are they just taking budget to for maintaining assets which are of no real value to the community anymore?
“So there needs to be that sort of understanding of future trends and predictions which relate to future assets.”
Chambers also has views on the way in which the accounting depreciation model has skewed asset management planning, in her opinion for the worse.
“Local government has been brought up with this finance model in maintaining assets and I think its wrong and broken,” she says.
“If I could speak with the Queensland auditor I would tell them that using depreciation just drives you in one line and doesn’t allow for any critical thinking at all around changes in service delivery or future goals.
“So in my opinion one of the biggest hurdles we have to overcome is shifting the perception that depreciation is the right way of going about it.”
Although she was an elected official, Chambers also believes that politics has no place in good asset management planning, and this extends to poor co-ordination between the tiers of government.
“We will fund a lot of things because it looks good somewhere else,” she says.
“We have to make sure that state and federal governments are aligned to a new way of thinking.”
Chambers has been out of local government for a year now in her new role as chief executive of Growcom, the peak body for Queensland horticulture, but keeps a keen eye on her former sector and has noticed some positive changes.
She sees a developing conversation about new methodologies to plan and assess asset management, using a more holistic approach combining engineering and finance with community needs.
“I’m really enjoying what I’m seeing in the different thinking about methodologies,” she says.
“I don’t think it’s a case of ‘one size fits all’ but there might be some principles which we can apply and which we can all align with.”
Rachel Chambers will be a speaker at IPWEA’s International Asset Management Congress to be held at the Gold Coast Convention & Exhibition Centre in Broadbeach, Queensland from Wednesday 14th to Thursday 15th June, 2023.