A tale of two smart cities – life in the NFP sector

By LAURIE PATTON | 23 January 2019

Many of my friends and colleagues have asked me  “what happened at ASCA?” but until now I have not been in a position to reply.

Around the world there’s a buzz in the tech sector is about something called ‘smart cities’. This essentially involves using existing and emerging technologies, many of them communications based, in order to make our cities and communities more liveable and more sustainable. Along with a national decentralisation plan I believe we could use smart cities initiatives to dramatically improve the lives of millions of Australians.

There are two organisations making most of the running here. One is the Australian Smart Communities Association (ASCA), which was created by a group of local government employees who foresaw great opportunities from the establishment of the National Broadband Network. ASCA’s members are mostly local councils.

The other is the Smart Cities Council – Australia New Zealand, which is an offshoot of an international body based out of North America. The Smart Cities Council has traditionally represented the vendor / supplier side, but in Australia it also welcomes members from local government.

Having spent several years advocating for #BetterBroadband, pointing to the huge potential the Internet has to improve our economic and social wellbeing, and highlighting flaws in the current NBN rollout, smart cities thinking seemed a natural fit for me.

So it was with much excitement that I responded to an invitation to meet with representatives of ASCA in Canberra in late 2017. Apparently I impressed all of those present and I was subsequently offered the position of inaugural CEO.

Life at the ASCA helm was challenging from the outset. Like other small member-based not-for-profits ASCA had historically been managed by the founding president – with the aid of three part-time contractors, all of whom lived on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Chief of these was the administration officer, who just happened to be the spouse of the president, Michael Whereat.

At the time I thought it odd that the president was not on the selection panel. Michael left the organisation several weeks after I arrived.

Notwithstanding his departure from the board, Michael subsequently undertook an ASCA-funded trip to attend a smart cities conference in Barcelona, accompanied by his wife. This was something I might have more easily accommodated were it not for the fact that it precluded me attending the event, much to the surprise of many industry colleagues. We just couldn’t afford for me to go too.

Following in her husband’s footsteps, Megan Whereat resigned within a week of her return from Europe, adding to the degree of difficulty for the new CEO.

Compounding the usual complexities of working with a volunteer board was the fact that they were geographically dispersed across the county. Despite my best efforts I was unable to ever arrange a face-to-face board meeting. In the end I left having not actually met several directors.

I eventually concluded  I had encountered a group of volunteer board members some of whom found letting go of the tiller difficult – with some having been there from day one – and no doubt being accustomed to a much more hands-on role than is customary with a CEO on deck. While I considered this somewhat understandable, and certainly not unique in the NFP sector, nonetheless it was frustrating and debilitating.

There was an early false-dawn when a new president, Brook Dixon, pushed for a governance review and a new constitution.

The first draft of the new constitution was written (or more accurately, apparently drawn from the constitution of a similar organisation) by a long-time board member. On reading this document Brook called to tell me he thought it was unsuitable and asked that I prepare a revised version.

One significant change that I inserted – strongly supported by Brook – was for direct membership to replace the existing option for a group of councils to form an intermediary organisation and join ASCA collectively. It is a matter of public record that one of the long-time directors was running such a group. In the end, there was no change to the constitution during my time at ASCA.

By far my biggest challenge was the upcoming ASCA annual conference. The profit from the event in 2017, along with a much smaller flow of member fees, formed a critical element in the budget on the basis of which the decision to hire a professional CEO had been made. Another profitable event in 2018 was essential for ASCA to maintain its growth strategy, including the role of CEO.

At the initial interview in Canberra I had inquired about the conference. Given that I’d previously owned and co-managed a conference production company I was naturally keen to know about the plans ASCA had for 2018. I was assured that everything was in hand. Suffice to say I soon discovered this was not the case.

In week three the previous conference organising company told me they weren’t available to manage the 2018 event. I hurriedly secured a replacement organiser and focussed most of my attention on the conference – securing a significant financial sponsorship from the Victorian Government and lining up a selection of high profile speakers.

The conference apparently went well, at least from an operational point of view. We’ll have to wait to see the latest annual report to gauge how it went financially.

Since my departure, ASCA has returned to its previous formula of volunteer board management with part-time contractor support.

As is a matter of public record, one director resigned from the board shortly after my departure and was duly appointed ASCA’s primary contractor (the remaining Sunshine Coast staff were let go). I have been informed that this person, too, has now left the organisation.

The following is from an agreed statement that formed part of the terms of my negotiated departure. “After careful consideration and deliberation, the ASCA Board decided that the chief executive officer position was no longer required. Mr Laurie Patton, former inaugural chief executive officer left ASCA on this basis and in his departure message to our members stated, I learned a great deal during my time at ASCA and look forward to continuing to work with its members and stakeholders on the promotion of smart cities policies”.

ASCA has around 150 of the 500 or so local councils as its members now, so it has considerable scope to grow. I wish its members well in their endeavours to build smart communities.

However, ASCA will undoubtedly have stiff competition from the better resourced and well-connected Smart Cities Council, and a few other fringe groups now playing in this exciting field.

(Laurie Patton was CEO / Executive Director of Internet Australia – the NFP peak body representing the interests of Internet users – from 2014-2017. During this time he took IA from being virtually unknown to become a widely respected and acknowledged industry association. Laurie subsequently spent a disappointing six months as ASCA’s inaugural CEO, with a similar ambition.)