With twenty years’ experience in local government behind her, Monica Barone is devoted to transforming Australia’s largest city into a flourishing metropolis that is inclusive, diverse, and eco-friendly.

Before her passionate foray into public service, Monica ran a theatre and events business with her now-former husband, drawing on her masters degree in the creative arts. “I made the transition from running my own business in the cultural sector to working as a cultural planner within local government,” she says.

The amalgamation of South Sydney and City of Sydney saw Monica move up the ranks to eventually secure the role of CEO. She’s been with the cosmopolitan council for ten years now, providing services and amenities for over 1 million people across the central business district each day, and she has no plans to leave any time soon. “My role has so much variety and covers so many areas that I often wonder, what on earth will I do next? How could I find another job that’s so interesting?”

An entire city working towards a ‘Sustainable Sydney’

Working alongside her staff of around 2,000, as well as Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, Monica has spearheaded the development of the Sustainable Sydney 2030 vision, used to drive a raft of environmental, social, and renewal initiatives around the Sydney CBD and surrounds. “That vision is probably my greatest achievement since taking on the CEO role,” says Monica. “It was developed in a very comprehensive way over the course of eighteen months, working closely with our community. It now guides everything we do, and every cent we spend.”

Monica Barone - City of Sydney - image

Following community consultations, the City discovered that people want a city that is green, global, and connected. “When they said ‘green’, they wanted the city to be literally green — with trees, parks, and open spaces. But they also wanted the city to perform well environmentally,” she says. City of Sydney has since become the first government in Australia to be certified as ‘carbon neutral’ under the National Carbon Offset Standard.

“When they said they wanted a ‘global’ city, they understood the importance of maintaining the competitiveness of the city, because if you’re not competitive then your economy doesn’t thrive. And when they said they wanted a ‘connected’ city, that meant socially, with great events and inclusivity for all, but also physically connected — good public transport, cycling, and walking.”

Sydneysiders enjoying $5 billion of new development in 2015

Since being appointed CEO, Monica has overseen hundreds of infrastructure projects including active transport, community facilities, and parks, which have won more than ninety national and international awards. In 2015, the City of Sydney processed more than $5 billion of new development, while major long-term projects include the Sydney CBD Light Rail — now managed by Transport for NSW — and the $13 billion Green Square Urban Renewal site, which is the largest renewal site in Australia, set to create 22,000 new jobs and house 63,000 residents. The City of Sydney is also delivering $540 million of civil and community infrastructure in Green Square.

Monica Barone - Article image

“The centrepiece of our urban vision is the light rail down George Street, which was derived from a real need to change the way the city operated, as greater congestion would impact both productivity as well as people’s enjoyment,” Monica says. “Hanging off that light rail spine is everything else we’ve done for the CBD and surrounds, including urban renewal, cycling lanes, places for small businesses, parks and green spaces, a cultural program, more residential and commercial buildings, and free events for everyone.”

Partnership with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Panel key to success

Like many organisations, a critical component to success was forming great partnerships, and City of Sydney is no exception. “I spend an awful lot of time building relationships with partners, with whom we deliver many new benefits,” says Monica. “We have support from local groups and businesses because they understand what is required if we are to share the prosperity.”

One such partnership driving success around culture, history, inclusivity, and diversity is with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Panel. “They are a key group that we consult with,” says Monica. “We have committed millions of dollars towards developing the Eora Journey in the public domain, so that people visiting Sydney can learn about our Aboriginal history and community.”

Another key collaborator is the Better Buildings Partnership (BBP), formed by City of Sydney as a result of its efforts toward reducing carbon emissions. As commercial buildings were responsible for a substantial portion of emissions output due to the use of ICT and air conditioning — and 50 per cent of these buildings were owned and operated by fourteen institutions — it made sense to invite those institutions to join the BBP panel to work at meeting sustainability targets together.

“As a group, they have now reduced their overall emissions by 45 per cent, and saved $30 million a year on their utility bills,” Monica says. “We also have a retail panel, a Chinese advisory panel, a public art panel, who are immersed in helping us deliver the long-term vision.”

The culmination of these efforts has driven real change for Sydney’s residents and visitors, with regular positive feedback humbling Monica and her team. In fact, upon being given a tour of all the changes implemented by the council, world-renowned science broadcaster and environmental activist, David Suzuki, told Monica he was so impressed, he wanted to make a documentary to share how positive outcomes can be achieved through long-term commitment to a cause.

“I love that we can actually make a difference. Every day I can go to work and I can see our effort being converted into results,” says Monica. “Even with all the challenges we face, we come to work each day and we plant another tree, install another solar panel, or open another childcare centre. We know what we’re doing, and why, and we just keep doing it.”

Monica a 2014 ‘100 Women of Influence’ finalist

Despite the million-and-one things occupying her, Monica also finds time to support a number of other causes close to her heart, including serving on the board of Sydney Festivals, which she did until mid 2015. She is on the advisory panel for Springboard Australia, and a member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. As a female business leader, Monica is an ardent voice in the debate for more diverse representation in business, and was a finalist in the 2014 ‘100 Women of Influence’ awards.

“The global evidence is in — diversity works. It’s not just a nice thing to do; the businesses that have diversity actually perform better,” she says. “Companies that have more women, and more people from different cultures, backgrounds, and age groups, are more competitive, and it makes them more successful.” The City of Sydney will be the first local government to publicly report
gender pay equity. At the City of Sydney the gender pay gap is 2.5 per cent. This compares well against the public sector average of 12 per cent and the national average of 17 per cent. “The older I get, the more upset I get about a lack of diversity — but also the more confident I become about what I can offer as a female CEO.”

Since the original Sustainable Sydney 2030 vision was adopted, Monica says they are thrilled to have accomplished all the council had set out to do, with the next five years’ targets developed. “We set our targets, we reach them, and we make a difference in people’s lives as a result,” she says. “What a privilege it is to lead an organisation like that.”