sign up log in
Want to go ad-free? Find out how, here.
Breaking news: Interest deductibility rules for property investors detailed; 'New builds' to be exempt for 20 years More soon.

The drive for local government centralisation and the pressure from Wellington to impose national 'solutions' to local issues, is disconnecting the 'public' from the 'service' they expect and are required to fund, observes Guy Trafford

The drive for local government centralisation and the pressure from Wellington to impose national 'solutions' to local issues, is disconnecting the 'public' from the 'service' they expect and are required to fund, observes Guy Trafford

One of the minor benefits of the Covid lockdown is that it does seem to provide additional time for a bit of contemplation, reading and examining the world around us.

One of the things that seems to keep leaping out at me is the problem New Zealand has with bureaucracy. It was largely from this that lead to the farming fraternity supported by tradies and others to take to the streets.

The problem has a number of faces; on the positive side, it is meant to provide a benchmark of safety in the way we operate and to enable governments, national and local to get things done that society requires. The general public are both the user and funder of the services the bureaucrats provide and so therefore have every right to have an expectation that the services provided meet their needs.

Unfortunately, increasingly this appears not to be the case.

Almost every sector of society can come up with countless examples where, at least in the eyes of the user, they have been let down with services provided.

Some of these sectors are particularly vulnerable and listening to and reading of several examples lately, the disabled sector has leapt to the top of my list. With 1 in 4 of the population it is perhaps the largest sector affected also but list could cover most of society. Justice, education, health, transport, building, immigration, ACC are some that leap to mind but no doubt there are plenty of other areas that could be listed but this is enough to start.

According to the public service website, the State sector employed around 295,800 people and local government had around 52,200 employees, about 350,000 in total in 2017 (Chart below). Updates from the State Services Commission show that it has grown to 429,500 by 2020. It makes up about 18.5% of the nation’s workforce. At this size to quote the mantra of the 2019 mosque shootings “they are us”.

On top of these numbers are those employed as contractors etc. and the point being the public service is an integral part of society, so, how come there seems to be this disconnect between them and us?

It is worth saying that the disconnect seems to occur within entities as much as it does with those on the outside. I.e. nurse and health workers with the MoH and DHB’s and teachers with the MoE.

For the rural sector, and probably urban also, the rot set in at the local government level with the amalgamation of small councils into the large conglomerates we now have. The number of local bodies went from 454 in the early 1980’s to 86 by 1992. The reforms and the later Auckland amalgamation were unusual in that there was no provision for those affected to vote on whether or not they wished for amalgamation to occur. This lack of democratic approval omission has now been rectified as of 2012.

Before the reforms ratepayers generally had a far better knowledge of who both their councillors and their council employees were, certainly those in positions of authority, thereby being better able to hold them to account. The same cannot be said now.

The reasons for the amalgamations can be seen in the current move in the Waikato  where an amalgamation is afoot. Here the CEO of the Waikato Chamber of Commerce, who is pro-amalgamation, said "Twelve replications, 12 governance bodies, 12 bureaucracies, 12 large cost-centres and 12 voices singing off separate song sheets." The Chamber wants the region to have a united and stronger voice but one involving less bureaucracy.

The reality seems to be that the reverse occurs.

At the time when the debate was occurring, Massey University Public Management Group director Andy Asquith said local government was not about efficiency, but about effectiveness and that big was not always best. "Business is fixated with profit and getting things done cheaply. Local government is not about any of those things. Local government is about engaging citizens in democracy and decision making." New Zealand compared to many other countries has a lack of local representation.

The Waikato situation aside, most of the combing of local bodies is and has been driven by Central Government. At the moment, there is the Three Waters Plan which proposes to bring 67 regional authorities into four. Likewise, there is the plan to bring the current 20 DHB’s into a centralised single entity.

In the case of the Three Waters programme, it appears most councils throughout the country are pushing back on the timelines allowed for consultation so both they and constituencies are better informed on the pros and cons. The problem which lies at the heart of what most sectors are experiencing appears to be that government and councils alike are not good at listening to what their relevant constituencies are saying and instead instigate programmes which they (Government and local bodies) know best. After all this, why (in the case of councils) they were set up in the first place so better expertise could be employed in a more complex world. Unfortunately, getting paid the ‘big bucks’ does not necessarily mean that the right decisions are made and certainly not what the constituencies want.

What causes this disconnect from the general public is likely to be complex.

Part of this must lie at where state and council employees consider whom they are accountable to.

With the detachment from ratepayers keeping the person above you in the organisation happy seems to be the priority and making sure no liability came come back to the organisation important.

Service to the community seems well down the list.

Whether our short election cycles (of 3 years) are part of the problem is difficult to ascertain but it must make it difficult for elected representative to get to know who’s who in their respective departments and areas of responsibility. This doesn’t however prevent government from going down their own philosophical pathways.

Wherever the problem lies it appears to be widespread and a major impediment to NZ Inc getting better benefit both from their productive sectors and for those reliant upon the State et al to provide the right services.

So farmers, while they got the headlines, are not the only ones feeling the effects of the bureaucratic culture that has permeated throughout New Zealand.

Can it change? Having seen earthquakes and pandemics seemingly to make the situations worse or at least no better, I have doubts. Unfortunately I cannot offer any ideas to improve the situation.

Y Lamb

Select chart tabs

Source:
Source:
Source:

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.

18 Comments

It appears to me lengthened election cycles would lead to less accountability not more I would rather it was shortened to focus them on the electorate requirements . The three waters proposal is a case in point they are trying to make it a done deal before they are held to an account by the electorate this proposal is totally authoritarian by nature .

Up
0

A public service, local and national, that is opinionated, self serving and unaccountable is a threat to both society and democracy itself. Yet this culture has not only arrived, it has taken hold, it is entrenched. The horse has the bit between its teeth and the jockey (us the community) powerless. My generation at least is lost in theses circumstances, by the sheer incompetence, spendthrift, vainglorious projects and the arrogance with which it is delivered. The unaccountable spending of other people’s money is pure open slather. Getting through the firewalls for enquiry or complaint is nigh on impossible and when you do make contact, the first instinct at the other end is, how can I get out of doing anything and look for the first exit. There is though, as always, the thin red line in there who are both earnest and hardworking. Seems to be none in the upper echelons though. In my opinion our public service is slowly but surely suffocating our nation. As far as there being a disconnect, that is exactly what the public service is driving, it is not happening accidentally.

Up
0

I believe the large number of Anglo-British accents you'll hear when senior public servants are being grilled for failure or non-delivery and the aloofness of some of our government departments are not unrelated.

Up
0

That’s interesting and as well to see just how many of the righteous leap on the “racist” card as opposed to if it had mentioned a non caucasian group.

Up
0

The bigger problem is the embedded ideology; if they were in the right track it wouldn't matter. But neoliberal economics told them that the Earth was flat (sorry, infinite) and they built their assumptions atop that misconception. We have to be careful about messages and messengers, from here on in. A bit like blaming the Taliban for living in a desolate place, or Maori for over-representation in prisons.

Up
0

Increasing legislation by central government is stopping district councils from doing the role they are meant to take in society - encouraging public participation.
The public expect councils' core focus being maintaining basic infrastructure such as roading and parks and water supply and in smaller rural areas roading alone can be 70% of council expenditure but it is not where management and staff time is focused.
With a legal requirement now to review every policy every five years (and often having to undertake public consultation) a large part of council resources are tied up in bureaucratic reviews - so enhancing the perception councils are inefficient.
A combination of the CEO being the only employee of council and only one accountable to council and high delegated authorities to management and the modern reality is councils are often run by the management team with elected members contributions cast to the fringes of importance such as road closures for Christmas parades and dog licensing fees.
Other recent moves by central government such as the recent removal of the right to have a citizens referendum on the inclusion of Maori wards has removed public involvement and reduced councils to cardboard facades of genuine decision making capability.
I wonder how many readers realise that future governance of our water infrastructure will be 50% by iwi - how is this representative of our population?
Urbanization is redefining communities of interest - the basis of local governance.
I am not a basher - the above are just examples that reflect the loss of participation and understanding at a community level.

Up
0

The Purpose of LG has been recently redefined back to the infamous 'four wellbeings' which include Social and Cultural Wellbeings'.

So those two alone are a bottomless pit of Demand against a woefully circumscribed set of LG revenue sources.

There was a brief interlude where the Purpose was (I paraphrase) the efficient and effective provision of essential, local services and facilities. Wiped as one of the first Labour actions, back to the Wellbeings' and the endless parade of buskers, events, climate emergencies and other boondoggles.

Sigh ...

Up
0

You do so mix your pinafores.

Wellbeing is a valid target - orders of magnitude more relevant then GDP.

But the proviso is: Not at the expense of others, be that horizontal displacement (offshore sweatshop labour) or vertical (future generations). That, on a finite planet, says you cannot have 'rights' without population curtailment. Simply a matter of per-head access. But wellbeing of those present - what more valid goal?

And it's time you gave up the CC thing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9oVTHKzC7TM (skip the intro, its a pita). There are bigger issues afoot.

Up
0

At the risk of sounding rather overblown in a conversation about local government, I think this is a symptom of a broader social problem; namely that people are increasingly bad at, indeed incentivised not to, distinguish form from content.
What I mean is this: there is for public servants an idea of accountability. That sounds good. But how can you be accountable if you don't know what the standard is? So standards are created. Processes are reviewed. KPIs are put in place. All of this is supposed to ensure that public servants are doing the work they are supposed to do.
Except it has the opposite effect. It empowers simpletons who are willing to the 'follow the process' even when the outcome is obviously wrong. It incentivises employees to 'game' the system by doing the bare minimum, because if they make any effort that falls outside the scope of the official process it will be a black mark against them. The useless, cynical and unimaginative thrive and ascend, the energetic and thoughtful depart in angst.
All in the name of 'accountability'. So be careful what you wish for.

Up
0

We are on the same page I think. My definition of accountable though is neither as complicated nor as extensive and refers to that of the external relationship, the interaction between the public, the community and those that are paid from the collection of rates, levies, tax and on, to provide municipal and rural services. Appreciate that is simplistic, but call me old fashioned then, but in my various careers and positions in private industry I never once thought that I was not accountable as an employee to my employer for my mistakes every hour every day and in each enviroment I certainly owned my mistakes, there was no alternative. So my point is substitute council for employee community for employer.

Up
0

My point is that there is a difference between real accountability and the *performance* of accountability. As you say, a public servant should feel accountable to the public as their employer; their decisions and their motivation should flow naturally from that. But there is a modern obsession with quantifying performance, which demands the creation of metrics, and the metrics become the measuring rod for good or poor performance. And already, at that point, you've lost sight of the original goal, and you are encouraging the *performance* of accountability rather than real accountability. It's an accepted excuse for poor outcomes to say "But I was following the process"; and it's a fair defence when you never had the option of exercising your own judgment.
Having metrics for things appeals to managers, because it makes their job simpler -- did employee X follow process Y, or not? -- removing messy, politically dangerous decisions about whether the greater good has been advanced.
Likewise, we have a national habit of insisting after every accident or misadventure that an inquiry be mounted -- a QC appointed to chair the inquiry -- a a set of recommendations made -- an advisory board created to monitor implementation of the recommendations... Every single time, another layer of processes is added, many of them irrelevant. To consider anything an accident seems to be regarded as an insult. So instead, we live with a hopelessly woolly, slow, contradictory bureaucracy, full of people who I would argue -- contra many here -- are largely competent and well-meaning, but actively *prevented* from doing what they think best in the course of their work.

Up
0

It's a bit hard to tell from that graph but it doesn't look like the numbers in education and health have increased in line with the population increases (although health numbers have gone up).
https://www.stats.govt.nz/topics/population
Given the population was under 4 million in 2000 that's a 25% increase in 20 years

Up
0

Hi, Wonderful journalism, full of information, light on the writer's opinions, and especially poignant in the final words,..."unfortunately I can't offer any ideas to improve the situation".
Very thought provoking.
Perhaps one thought...you used the words..."NZ Inc". Similarly 'Dear Leader' has been hammering the phrase,.."Team of 5 million." Perhaps this quite common idea that we are a small cohesive nation which with right leadership could advance through focus on a handful of agreed aims, to,...."punch well above our weight" in the big bad world!
But is this not just myth making? Over the past 100 years, particularly, we have beensteadily moving from qualities of individualism, resilience,self discipline, etc, to our current situation where huddle together, making sure our neighbours get no bigger share than us,...all under the warm blanket of state socialism.
On the bright side (depending on one's own perspective) the future seems to be an Asian one. Quite noticeably it is our Asian kids who are studying hard and achieving good careers...they will be the future and perhaps a lot of our pakeha/maori mythology will get pushed aside by the real tasks of just getting on with life?
We will have discovered that the natural resource we bought for blankets and muskets, will have been sold for an even more useless wad of paper bank notes.

Up
0

At least they can substitute for bogroll. That's way ahead of bitcoin......

Up
0

I haven't being living in NZ for many years, coming back to see mum it's not the country I grew up in 80's. It's become a feminist diversitifed socilist country where everything is failing. Fortunilyty countries like Thaialnd offer exceptional retirement lifestyles and that is where I am headed. Even if you aren't over 50 you can buy the Thai elite visa which gets you in, many other South East Asian countries are following suite. What I don't understand is why people stay, National/Labor are the same, the only thing that changed is everything got a lot worse. I never never seen so many homeless and so much tension, crime and gang numbers are rocketing. Why not just leave, it's actually not a great country though you maybe fooled into thinking so.

Up
0

Thailand is a corrupt military dictatorship where a police officer with a $3M car collection has just been videoed extorting & killing an arrested person. Good luck with that.

Up
0

"Massey University Public Management Group director Andy Asquith said local government was not about efficiency, but about effectiveness and that big was not always best. "Business is fixated with profit and getting things done cheaply. Local government is not about any of those things. Local government is about engaging citizens in democracy and decision making."

"Updates from the State Services Commission show that it has grown to 429,500 by 2020."

You can see the problem in the attitudes right there. I used to work for a global multinational manufacturing/marketing company operating in 190 countries serving 2.5 billion consumers daily with less than 150000 people.

Up
0

Well it all changed tack when the councils became corporates. Town clerks became chief executives. Salaries were pegged to what was out there in the private sector to start off with and of course starting from the high end.Divisions were formed and empire building within each grew like topsy as all the managers etc starting reaching for the greasy rungs of the executive ladder. Meanwhile back in the jungle, the community slept. Then began the era of the consultant. Employment of such meant required outcome for report could be bedded in beforehand, the consultant had a disclaimer absolving any liability if it all turned to custard and the council could blame the consultant leaving everyone free and easy from that terrible word accountable. Just a slice of the layer cake of bureaucracy everyday every week which feeds the maxim of all authority no responsibility.

Up
0