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

By LAURIE PATTON | 16 May 2019

Back in January I wrote about my disappointing time at the helm of the Australian Smart Communities Association. Since then all the Annual Reports have been taken down from the ASCA website. This happened only days after I’d asked for a copy of the latest report, having noticed that it had not been posted on the website along with all the others.

When I inquired about the return of these reports I was informed that they had been removed as part of a major website upgrade. While I couldn’t quite understand the logic of the argument (no other changes have been made to the site) I nevertheless accepted it and repeated my request for a copy of the latest Annual Report. Despite numerous subsequent requests I still have not received one.

Around the world there’s a buzz in the tech sector 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 21st Century National Broadband Network and a decentralisation plan, which I have long championed, I believe we could use smart cities initiatives to dramatically improve the lives of millions of Australians.

There are two organisations heading up most of the smart cities running here. ASCA, which was created by a group of local government employees who foresaw great opportunities from the establishment of the NBN, is one. The other is the Smart Cities Council – Australia New Zealand, which is an offshoot of an international body based out of North America.

Having spent several years advocating the need 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.

ASCA was challenging from the outset. Like other small member-based not-for-profits it had historically been managed by a founding president and a volunter board – with the aid of three part-time contractors, all of whom lived on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

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’d encountered a group of directors some of whom found letting go 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 in charge. While I considered this somewhat understandable, and certainly not unique in the NFP sector, it was nonetheless frustrating and debilitating.

There was an early false-dawn when a new president, Brook Dixon, pushed for a governance review and a new constitution. However, unable to reach a consensus as to how to proceed this major governance reform never happened. Mr Dixon left the board shortly after me.

By far my biggest challenge was the upcoming ASCA 2018 annual conference. The profit from the event in 2017, along with a much smaller flow of membership 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 was essential for ASCA to maintain its growth strategy, including the role of CEO.

In my third week the previous conference organising company told me they weren’t available to manage the 2018 event. Planning was well behind schedule by then, so 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.

I’d departed by then, but despite the early hick-up the conference apparently went well, at least from an operational point of view. In the absence of a copy of the latest Annual Report we don’t know how it went financially.

Since my departure, ASCA has returned to its previous formula of volunteer board management.

POSTSCRIPT:

After numerous requests I secured access to the latest ASCA Annual Report. It shows a fall in revenue of $150K. Retained earnings was down from $215K to $32K.

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