Why untrained volunteers run big bucks budgets

They oversee annual budgets of millions of dollars, make decisions that have profound influence on the lives of hundreds of people, pursue policies that could have devastating effects on the value of your investments and most do it with zero training in any of the significant skills required for a modicum of certainty or authority.

I’m talking about strata committees, as they’re known in NSW and Victoria and executive committees in Queensland and the ACT, and other names in other states.

With millions of dollars at stake, surely they get professional help? In fact, about half of the strata schemes in NSW – mostly the smaller, older buildings – don’t have a strata manager, and the proportion may be even higher elsewhere.

The UNSW’s recently released strata data report said there were 316,000 strata schemes in Australia and only about 4,300 professional strata managers – that’s about 75 schemes per strata manager – so you have to wonder who’s running the show and on what basis.

That’s not to say having a strata manager is a guarantee of good management. They vary greatly in their competence and committee members can still operate based on a mixture of ignorance, “common sense”, mutual self-interest and the odd prejudice.

Even the most diligent strata managers will be tempted to pull their heads in when their clients make it clear that they don’t want to hear anything that prevents them from doing as they please.

But these are extremes. The big concern is the well-intentioned committee members bumbling along and getting things mostly right … until they get something spectacularly wrong.

That could range from allowing the time limit for defect claims to evaporate in new buildings or allowing an owner to ride roughshod over their by-laws just by force of their personality, threats of legal action and demanding ‘rights’ that simply don’t exist.

In the 15 or so years that Flat Chat has been going, complaints about strata bullies dominating weak or ill-informed committees have been legion.

But committee members are volunteers, and they’d need to know they were on solid ground if they were expected to suffer the inevitable backlash from an entitled owner who wasn’t getting his or her way.

It’s that knowledge gap that’s the worry and with the increasing number of strata residents around the country, it’s growing.

The strata managers’ professional body Strata Community Australia (SCA) used to have an excellent online committee members’ training program in NSW. But that disappeared when the new laws came in in 2016.

Instead, the SCA, individual strata management companies and owners’ organisations like the Owners Corporation Network as well as City of Sydney Council run seminars for strata residents.

However, these tend to be highly focussed on specific issues – like pets, parking, noise and defects – and rarely if ever address the basics of how to run an efficient committee.

So what do we do to bridge the knowledge gap? Should there be compulsory training for committee members?  That won’t work because it’s hard enough to get people to give up their time just to attend meetings, let alone evening classes.

Perhaps office-bearers should have a year to get some sort of certificate before they can seek re-election.  Or committee members should be paid a modest amount, but only if they have been through a course.

Or maybe governments don’t want strata owners to get too savvy. Knowledge is power, as is a strong collective voice.

My inner conspiracy theorist whispers their worry might be that as we get with the program, we might take a long hard look at who caused the problems in the first place.

When you think about it, there is no compulsory training for parents (because we are all so good at it), or basic health, hygiene or even diet. There are generations of young people in Australia who have no idea how to use a kitchen stove, regardless of the aspirational brainwashing of MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules.

Between balcony barbecues and UberEats, why would anyone  learn how to chop an onion or steam broccolini?

So it’s safe to say compulsory training for strata committees is way down the priority scale for governments. On the other hand, if you go out and find it for yourself, think what that does for your knowledge – and power – in your building.

A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review 

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