Making people count in local government

Population data helps local government make decisions. It is a crucial element for understanding and planning for growth and change. Yet capturing, analysing and sharing population data it is not without its challenges.

To focus on how local government are ‘making people count’, Astrolabe Group’s Associate Director and President of the Australian Population Association Dr Kim Johnstone chaired an expert panel, joined by Simon Massey (City of Newcastle), Sarah Shehata (City of Casey) and Simone Alexander (REMPLAN).

Over 100 people registered for the event, hosted online by Astrolabe in collaboration with the Australian Population Association.

A full recording is available on the Australian Population Association’s YouTube channel.

Three key takeaways

1. Understand who you are planning for

Population drives every decision. Key to Astrolabe’s demographic advice for Councils is making sure Councils understand the age profile of their communities. The age profile of a place is a strong indicator of what will happen in the next 5-10 years. It helps see who is in a place, their key characteristics, and what will drive change into the future. Councils can use this to understand service demand and plan appropriately – for example, identifying early childhood services or job opportunities.

Simone Alexander argued ‘Don’t focus on the number. Focus on the drivers behind the number’. This means understanding the components behind population numbers – births, deaths and migration, both internal and from overseas.

Communities also need to understand how their local places are changing. If Councils understand what’s driving population change, they can talk about what that means in a way that resonates with the community.

2. Population helps more informed strategy development

For growth councils, change is a constant. Sarah Shehata described how the City of Casey has approached the development of their Community Services and Infrastructure Plan as a fluid document. As their population changes, being responsive allows them to update forecasts and modelling and keep the document relevant.

Council strategies that lead with population data support community and local businesses to make insightful decisions. Simon Massey explained how Newcastle City Council’s newly adopted Economic Development Strategy focused on their skills base to genuinely call out challenges for their business community.

Having someone in-house who understands population is an advantage – an ‘internal champion’ that explains why population characteristics are important and how they impact decisions. In local government, the population conversation tends to be led from a social planning space. This capability is not always possible due to Council size and being able to access the right information and advice when needed is critical.

3. Overcome uncertainty with different data

The ABS Census is the ultimate source of truth for demographers providing detailed data for small areas. A limitation is that it is only collected once every five years – and for Councils there are communities and suburbs that can change a lot in that time! One challenge is finding data to work out which aspects of the population have changed and which have stayed the same.

COVID-19 disruption has been a strong reminder of how challenging it is to understand population growth and change without reliable or readily available data. In the interim Councils are seeking out proxy datasets to help build a near real time understanding of local communities. Panelists and audience members noted the use of subdivision data and bin requests as one common way to estimate population change ahead of building permit data.

Simon Massey explained how Newcastle City Council are using data from the private sector, including real estate and recruitment agencies, to help better understand local population characteristics. Simon also highlighted the potential of Council using smart city infrastructure to collect its own data.

Data sharing between Councils and agencies was also highlighted as crucial to support understanding. If data sharing is in place, it avoids repetition of data collection and can provide a single source of truth. As put by Sarah: ‘Share, share, share – we don’t need to reinvent the wheel’.

To find out more about Astrolabe’s approach to understanding population and using it to inform strategic planning please Kim Johnstone at [email protected]