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Amanda O'Halloran, CEO Shire of Derby West Kimberley
One of four Kimberley local governments, the Shire has a population of about 8000 people, and more than 50 Aboriginal communities. 

Amanda describes herself as a country girl who grew up in WA’s north west, mostly the Pilbara and Gascoyne. It’s given her pleasure, she says, to be able to ‘come home’ by working for local government. 

Here, Amanda talks about her career, women in leadership and her hopes for the future. 

Tell us a bit about yourself 

I am grateful to have kicked off my local government career as Western Operations Managers at the Shire of Ashburton. During my nine years there I progressed to Director of Strategic and Economic Development, before becoming CEO at the Shire of Wandering in 2015.  I appreciated the opportunity to develop extensive relationships in WA’s south; it was a great experience that I often refer to as my CEO apprenticeship. 

I have had a number of experiences that have helped mould my leadership style and honed my experience, these key opportunities include:

  • The opportunity to work closely with Aboriginal communities across the State and continue to learn about the culture and heritage of our first peoples.
  • Taking Shire lead for the Wheatstone oil and gas development in Onslow.
  • Being Project Director for the Onslow Airport Redevelopment.
  • Undertaking Strategic Community Planning across three Shires with very different needs and community outcomes.
  • The opportunity to work with communities through disasters such as cyclones, flooding and fire assisting in emergency response and then in recovery and rebuild.
I have a fundamental belief that local government is a key facet of primary health care, thereby being pivotal to community health and wellbeing. I do perhaps challenge some of the traditional ‘Roads, Rates and Rubbish’ thinkers. While these areas are critical, local government does have the opportunity to facilitate, engage and foster community initiatives, projects, and developments. 
I love living in the Shire of Derby West Kimberley. My family and I love camping, bush walking, exploring national parks and river beds and the beautiful ocean. We have so much to see and do, I can only hope I can fit work in!

What was it that attracted you to the role of CEO at the Shire of Derby West Kimberley and what are your key achievements?

I was keen to experience the wonders of living and working in the Kimberley. Derby and Fitzroy Crossing have fascinated me since I visited in my earlier life and career. It seemed natural to apply for the role when it became available. 

The greatest attraction however was the opportunity to help shape the Shire of Derby West Kimberley to be a modern Shire which represented the needs of such a diverse community. The Shire comprises 54 Aboriginal communities, two major town-sites and the smaller remote posting of Camballin. The Shire is 85 per cent Aboriginal and comprises of industry such as pastoral, mining and aquaculture. 
There is an incredible opportunity for the Shire to develop strategies to guide how it works with Aboriginal people towards better cultural, social, health and economic outcomes. 

What are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Clear pathways for local employment enabling all residents of the Shire to have access to the wonderful career opportunities that local government hold. It is my aim that we will have a few local staff, preferably Aboriginal women, on a career trajectory to CEO.  I would like to see a comprehensive traineeship program developed in the Shire that gives young people across the communities, especially in the townsites of Derby and Fitzroy, access to their first job. This would enable our young people to stay in the community and have opportunities that are often much more easily accessible in larger regional communities.
I would like to see increased local small business tourism experiences develop that showcase the region. These could provide exciting hands-on opportunities for visitors to experience the wonders of the local culture, the rich history — good and not so — and the hopes and opportunities that the locals have for the future. I would like catching a barra to be accessible to all and for visitors to be able to sit down and yarn with the locals and have the opportunity to hear first-hand what it means to live in the Kimberley from those that know. I would like to see local art, artefacts and handmade local trinkets be made available as souvenirs, creating opportunities for our local communities to prosper from the tourism opportunities.
I would like to see the Shire have a sustainable financial future and be resilient and nimble to be able to roll with the punches; the Shire of Derby West Kimberley has had a number of setbacks over the last decade, most significantly the economic influences of mining and large projects such as the Curtin Detention Centre coming and going. It is essential that we work to ensure that we have capacity to harness opportunities whilst maintaining our core functions and services in the low times. 

What do you see as the main challenges and opportunities of being a woman in a local government leadership role?

I think local government is a wonderful opportunity for women to seek management opportunities and to strive for the CEO role.  A significant portion of senior management and current CEOs are likely to retire from the sector in the near future and this provides new opportunities for women to put themselves forward and assert their mark on senior management roles. Things have improved considerably  over the last five years which is very encouraging.

The key challenge for women in leadership is making sure every perceived challenge is turned into an opportunity, such as: 

  • Difficulty balancing work with your personal life. Can women really have it all? I think ‘yes we can’. Be strong and create a blend of work and life that suits you, achieves the organisation’s requirements and encourages others to do the same. 
  • Myths such as women are emotional and less decisive than men! Gender diversity is good business these days and women bring unique ideas and experiences to the table. Women need to be strong and have a clear voice to ensure that they are heard and hold their confidence to shape the new business structures and workplaces to change with the diverse world we are living in.
  • The sector dominated by men, we are often the only woman in the room. Turn that into a positive and take the opportunity to stand out and play to your strengths, showcasing the skills and attributes that you bring to the environment.
Women are typically sound listeners and often build teams well. Again, I think these are key traits that are essential when building strong workforces with a good culture. We need to ensure that we surround ourselves with solid mentors and actively navigate the road ahead. My advice would be to develop your own strategic plan for how your future is going to map out and if you have hurdles or setbacks, continue to access the amazing supports that the industry has available. I have often reached out for support and it has always been available. 

How do we get more women into local government leadership roles?

It’s important to showcase the diverse opportunities in local government and to ensure that our employment advertising, training and participation initiatives are welcoming and accessible. We do need to sell ourselves more than we do generally and most particularly, to encourage women into senior management and councillor roles. Other opportunities include:

  • developing networks
  • creating and listening to women on what it takes to build an industry that has the right work-life blend.
  • improving access to professional development opportunities
  • proactive recruitment and outreach, encouraging more women to aspire to a local government management career.
Women also need to gain the confidence to say ‘I am good enough’ and go for it!  I applied for everything and used the interviews and application process to help with my road map — identifying the areas I needed to develop and the skills I needed to refine.  I sought support and help with interviewing techniques as this often let me down and I also sought out help to get my selection criteria right and ensure that I was specifically talking to the councillors assessing me for the job.  There are many people — men and women — in the industry who are keen to see you succeed, so get out there and ask for help and the world is your oyster.

What are the key community challenges and opportunities at the Shire and how are you approaching these?

The Shire of Derby West Kimberley faces many challenges, to name a few:  extensive road networks, remote and diverse communities and town-sites, lack of economy of scale in relation to service delivery, cost of regional service delivery, complex climatic conditions — a disaster event most years — and last but not least, our key challenges are:

  • attracting and maintaining a stable skilled workforce
  • community expectation versus commercial reality
  • financial sustainability
  • the remote cost of doing business
  • community safety and well being.
We have identified many opportunities to present to private enterprise, Federal and State Government which outline long term plans to help overcome these issues and look to help the Shire be more self-determined into the future. Opportunities such as building and growing our local workforce, reducing the reliance on buying in staff, or capturing the transient partner workforce, buying local and strengthening local service delivery, tourism and retail. In the aftermath of the COVID experience many people were forced to look locally first to seek entertainment, retail therapy and service delivery. This has demonstrated that we can improve the economy locally and build opportunities from within.
We are working to better understand what capacity is available in our budgets, to increase spending in the area of asset renewal and capital works. This will require some difficult questions regarding service levels and community expectations. It is important however to keep looking for areas to improve and seeking opportunities with our neighbours and local business.
Community safety and wellbeing is front and centre; a challenge the community expects the local government to participate in. The Shire and Council have an opportunity to advocate and influence policy direction and State and Federal Government service delivery, in an effort to improve the liveability of our communities and the wellbeing of our residents.

Tell us about something great the Shire is working on

In 2020, the Shire of Derby West Kimberley commenced a significant review of its Strategic Community Plan (SCP). The Shire committed to engaging as many members of the community as possible to better understand their needs.  

Councillors and staff, as ‘Champions’, led the SCP process using a project management approach. Champions were a critical element of the process, to ensure that they fully understood and owned what the community said.

A consultation toolkit was developed and numerous strategies were used to gain feedback including surveys, popup stalls, community events, feedback cards and workshops. The diverse methods used provided the Shire with a unique opportunity to strengthen relationships, and build staff capacity. Processes were continually reviewed and modified, with active reflection at workshops, debriefs and individual feedback from Councillors, Champions and the community. 
Champions consulted extensively, receiving feedback from more than 1700 respondents (22 per cent of the population); and engagement of more than 3000 people, including representatives from agencies, organisations and groups.
To honour everything that was said, the Report on Community Engagements was prepared to publish detailed feedback; and share the planning scope, objectives, methods and lessons learnt.
For the Shire, responding to community feedback requires strong strategic partnerships which span a variety of industries and sectors. The development of the ‘sphere of influence’ (a tool to help the community, agencies and key stakeholders better understand Council’s role in the issues they outlined) has been used to communicate with stakeholders how what the community said can be addressed within the Shire’s remit; or how it can otherwise be addressed through partnerships and lobbying or advocacy. 
The SCP provides clear directions and parameters, but also allows the Shire to take advantage of opportunities as they arise or adapt according to unforeseen circumstances. This opportunity has been a magnificent community engagement, which has reset the relationships with the community and enabled the Shire to have a clear understanding of the communities’ hopes and aspirations for the future.

Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

I grew up the daughter of a senior local government manager who later went on to be CEO. This helped me see what a wonderful opportunity local government is.  Caring for your community through the services that local government provides, is second to none, and I encourage anyone outside of local government to give it a go if not to perhaps find your future path, to at least understand the complexity of the industry and to better appreciate all that it does. 
I have had quite a blessed career, not without its trials and tribulations that do come with the local government sector. However, the wonderful experiences, the people I have had the pleasure of working with, and the many amazing projects I’ve had the opportunity to grow from, have reinforced my passion for the sector.  

It’s my dream to see the sector better respected in the community at large.


Page reviewed 06 May 2022