Interview: Mayor of City of Vincent

By Charlene Chin

The Uber of local governments?

“Our council likes to see ourselves as the Uber of local government in Western Australia”, says John Carey, the Mayor of the City of Vincent.

That’s a bold claim for a local government, but Carey asserts that the council has started by driving change in its internal culture. “We want our staff to think outside of the box, to be innovative in what we do, and to look at how we can best support our local economy.”

GovInsider spoke to the Mayor to learn more about the council’s push for innovation, and its support for tech startups.

A public-private partnership

The council has grouped citizens and local businesses in dedicated teams to plan activities in their town centres. These “business precinct teams”, or “town teams” - as the Mayor coins it - get to plan community events, festivals, tourism efforts, and movements to improve their town centres. “In Western Australia, this has not been usual - often it is just local government that does all the organisation and leads on events”, he says.

Carey’s team manages, facilitates and provides funding to these groups. “The small businesses and residents who live in those town centres, who live on those main streets, know their areas best”, he says. “It’s a new way of how we promote and organise our town centres.”

Attracting small businesses

To attract activity to its town centre, the council has also cut fees for cafes and restaurants. All local governments in Western Australia charge businesses a fee for outdoor seating on public walkways, but Vincent City decided otherwise. “We want retail, cafes and restaurants, and small businesses to be active in our town centres”, Carey says, to bring vibrancy and boost tourism.

The city has also begun to move some services to a digital platform. Every year, eatery owners must submit their seating plan to the Council, he says. Carey’s team has shifted this to an online system to speed up the process. “If it’s all within the existing rules, it’s almost automatic approval,” he says.

The Mayor frets over the city’s poor internet. Residents rely on the federal National Broadband Network roll out, “which is not going well”, he admits. “It’s something that we have been strongly advocating for”, Carey says, but direct action lies outside his jurisdiction.

The council has to work around this setback to lend support to its growing startup scene - providing grants and cutting red tape for tech firms to set up in the city, he says. Currently, a number of companies are working on virtual reality applications, he adds.

Liveability and sustainability

Braithwaite Park Nature Play Area - a local nature playground built with the community’s input.

The council wants to improve urban design to encourage more people to live in the central parts of the city. Vincent City is part of the Perth metropolitan, and more people are moving to its outskirts. “We are spreading too much as a city”, the Mayor says. So the council is trying to contain the sprawl by encouraging “exceptional density” and great design” in apartment buildings, hoping that residents will opt to live in the inner city areas, he says.

The city government has also set a canopy target in high density areas to make them more attractive. “You need to have significant tree cover, which provides great amenity in these high density buildings,” he says. Citing Singapore as an example, the Mayor wants to bring the “same design excellence” to Perth, with other benefits like natural light and ventilation.

Priority and challenge

Carey wants his administration to be more transparent, and has set up a website to disclose the city’s transactions. This is “critical” to fostering trust, he says. Information on gifts and hospitality received by staff, and communication with developers, for instance, are published online so citizens are aware of “the decisions that we’re making and how we’re spending money”.

The biggest challenge he faces is to change the mindset of his staff, to constantly push the envelope and improve the city’s service delivery. “How can we do better? How can we serve our customers better?”, Carey challenges. His team members undergo a “comprehensive” training programme that he hopes will drive them to “provide excellent customer service”.

It’s tree targets, dedicated town teams and building trust with this council. Mayor Carey means serious business - above all, he’s putting his customers first.