David Hargreaves says other things need to happen first before we consider giving local government more decentralised power

By David Hargreaves

Perhaps it was because the news came out during the weekend, but the moves by Local Government New Zealand, in conjunction with public policy think tank NZ Initiative, to seek to devolve more power and funding to local councils, got probably less attention than they deserved.

That actually worries me. Because you can be sure that Local Government NZ and the NZ Initiative will push hard on this.

We could end up with some form of decision being made to allow greater decentralisation of decision making and funding without a lot of us realising it is about to happen.

And I think it's something we all should be able to contribute to in terms of a debate and I think it should be very broadly looked at before any consideration is given.

On the face of it the idea of councils being directly funded (just what form that would take hasn't been specified at this point), rather than getting this through central government makes sense.

Localised decision making makes sense. In theory a local council knows what's right for its district and its people much more than the lawmakers in Wellington.

But I would be concerned that we are attempting to run before we can walk.

Now, in terms of central government, I certainly have some complaints about both the quality of our MPs and some of the decisions made. But Parliament with its various processes, such as select committees etc, does offer some sort of quasi-judicial check and balance regime.

What about at local government level though? Checks and balances? Accountability? I'm sorry, we might need more than just general assurances that everybody will be sensible.

I mentioned 'quality'. Most of us would probably personally know at least one or two local councillors. I've known a few in my time. All I will say without naming names is 'results may definitely vary'. Some of the councillors I have known and count as friends are very talented people. Some I wouldn't put in charge of the local raffle. And that's the essential problem. Local Government New Zealand will shrilly deny it, but I would say the talent pool for local councillors tends to be far too shallow for us to be comfortable - certainly if these people are being invited to make decisions much deeper than local essential services.

Most people will probably be able to find things their local council has done that are unfathomable to them, be it vanity projects on the part of certain councillors, or instances where vested interests have got alongside the council and managed to get one of their pet projects off the ground.

And the other thing is, too often these local councils may give very sensitive or difficult decisions the closed-door treatment, whereby the public (and media) get excluded and the decisions are made in secret.

Now that riles people up.

Firstly, you want to know that the people making the decisions are the highest calibre of people you can get and secondly that the decision-making process is, to use the well-worn cliche, a 'robust' one.

Okay, so, I'm being a bit critical of councils - and in a slightly sweeping way, which is sure to be unfair to some.

So, how about I have a bit of a go at us. We get what we vote for - or as far as the majority of Kiwis are concerned, we get what we didn't vote for because we couldn't be bothered filling out the voting papers and sending them back.

Despite the best efforts of Local Government NZ, with a 10-monthly awareness campaign, it was barely able to raise the participation rate for the 2016 local body elections. This is LGNZ's own graph charting the participation in each of the past three local body elections.

I'm sorry, I don't think any authority that's elected on the basis of 42% of the population has a proper mandate to be making far-reaching decisions in the community. 

This is where I say we need to start walking before we run.

Now, it might be that both LGNZ and the NZ Initiative believe that the public will get more interested in voting for local councils and also that those councils will attract a more consistent calibre of talented individuals if said councils are devolved greater power and funding.

But I think that's a dangerous thing to think.

Right now, I don't think our local bodies are vaguely in a position to take on greater power and funding responsibility. So, if we think greater devolution is a good idea - and I do genuinely think it's at least worth considering - then we need to ensure that the public is engaged and that the talent will be there. Also, we need to ensure that the decision making on a local level is 'robust' and not prone to shutting the doors in the face of the public every time something contentious is being discussed.

I said walk before you run, you could equally say put the horse before the cart. 

Before any serious consideration is given to undertaking the kind of increased local funding and decision making being promoted, we've got to ensure that local councils are genuinely representing the people they are supposed to - and a 42% vote certainly ain't that. And there's got to be a drive to get better quality people right through.

This is up to us. We've got to get more involved. And the prospect that local councils might be at some stage given more power is surely reason enough for more of us to get involved, heck not just in voting, but those of us who believe we have marketable skills that would be useful, well, we can stand for local bodies.

I'm not sure how we get this to happen. But it needs to happen before - NOT after - councils are given any more power. 

There would need to be all sorts of checks and balances put in place to ensure that while local councils can make local decisions, they do so in consideration with what goes on in the rest of the country too.

'Having the discussion' is another great cliche of the moment. But if these moves to devolve more power locally are going to be pushed - and you bet they will be (see LGNZ's proposed plan of action below) - then we as a general public need to be talking about it now.

Otherwise we'll wake up one day and find our local council has all these shiny new powers we didn't know about or particularly want them to have.

I reiterate: I'm not saying devolving more power and funding to councils is necessarily a bad idea. I am saying I would not want to see it happening right now with the inconsistencies of talent and decision making we see at local government level and the lack of public support for those 'elected'.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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34 Comments

One problem with councillors (in Auckland at least) is the way they are elected by ward. We saw it with the unitary plan where so many of the councillors said something along the lines of 'yes we need more housing, but not in my suburb'. Councillors should be elected to represent the whole region, not just a small pocket of self interest.

Is that why we build the new suburbs far from where people live?

Why not a move towards Athenian democracy? Every elector invited to a big party - meaning free food and a tea/coffee (cost say $5 per head) - all candidates get a short speil and are then elected (drop a marble in appropriate container on the way out). Keep the electors from getting bored and leaving early by generous raffle after their vote (say $20,000 plus free memberships of council leisure centres etc). Then the clever bit: on any issue voters who showed sufficient interest to vote can also vote online on each local policy decisions proportional to their number - so my local council is deciding to sell the local car park for enormous profit to property investors but if over 50% of electors vote against the idea then the councillors are overruled.
Athenian democracy can only work if you have a small number of voters (say typical small village in India or PNG) or if you have universal access to the internet. Time for NZ to lead the world with democracy again.

I was thinking along the same lines, but you are far ahead of me. Great stuff, local councils are just a mess, lots of silly rules and the council staff undervalued and some things done well and others badly. Some direct democracy needed. What do the Swiss do? They seem to be the masters at direct democracy.

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The assumption in the article that Councillors control Policy (let alone Execution) is risible. Unelected staff run the show, and getting That to change is gonna take well more than diddling around with 'awareness' and 'engagement' and 'democracy' of various stripes.

Council gets the reports with suggested Rissolutions from staff, gets the 'rates required' figure from staff, gets the KPI 'reports' from staff, gets the run-around from staff if they dare suggest anything outside the current set of tunnel-vision spex the staff are wearing, and gets to fund the latest fad suggested by staff who have been to the last conference of ';experts'. Because Think of the Children.

I have been both a staffer in the pre-1989 local government, and a consultant to the post-1989 crew, all in smaller and thus typically more sensible TLA's, and all in financial and budgetary matters, and, thankfully for my sanity, not in the last decade or so.

Get anywhere near the big ones, and the comparative influence of staff versus Council tips well over to the Staff side. The numbers are huge, the Councillors are regarded as a set of ever-changing clown shoes around a distant table, and the main driving forces are the Peter Principle and the tendency of large organisations to ossify.

So I am in full agreement with the article's main point: that these clowns are in no way ready to demand, receive and control, any more of our munny, our societal functions, or our attention, than they currently waste.

What, councils run by a bunch of incompetent bludgers? Surely not? I am shocked, shocked, do you hear?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPY6Pp4kmxQ

This is how I imagine council workers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLx_QdO5S1E

Brilliant choice. Your winning sir. I was thinking along the lines of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_FrQnQv0Vw but that is because I wish for a karmic version of Malcom Tucker in councils to give them some payback for their actions.

First of all it is not a council, it is a corporate. Secondly they are not staff, they are executive. Thirdly he/she is not the Town Clerk but a ???

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I want less control from local government, not more. God help us!

Amen to that.

What have council got wrong recently? A lot of things they seem to get wrong are actually government mandated (eg building code, speed limits, borrowing limits, etc)

The massively out of control payroll, the fact they are going looking for more money because they are in debt up to their nostrils, the money they waste on ATEED, talk of funding the statue of liberty cheap rip off at bastion point, light rail on dominion road to start with. Then there is small stuff around where I travel, and everytime I see them doing roadworks I have to wonder what new method they have invented to screw the traffic flow.

ETA: the half million dollars they have spent on engineering consultants to take themselves to court is another shining example of why Auckland council needs a bit of a clean out..

yeah they already spoiled the view from mission bay with that stupid red shed on Bastion point which stands out like an eyesore. What about a big blue plastic Venus de Milo, one with arms. We could put that in among the Nikau palms.

I could write an Encyclopedia in answer but the executive summary - pretty well everything.

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If you think central government is useless, local government is on a whole other level

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Given that local government can't manage their current responsibilities why would you give them more?

A lot of councils are a major hindrance to business and Auckland Council can't even balance their budget due to their payday loan approach to financial management.

I seem to be at variance with other commentators. Although I concur with the average perception of council competance I am terrified of reducing local democracy. Waymad's comment was persuasive. The nearest example of the increased democracy I would prefer is Switzerland with their system of cantons with minimal central government. Just been on holiday in Europe and spent only 3 days in Switzerland and I was very impressed. Clearly very wealthy. Rather conservative but it seemed to be a great place to live. How making big decisions local changes things is demonstrated by their making education and social services a local canton responsibility; it has resulted in half the average single mothers on benefits and half the students going to university (but many more techical apprenticeships).
To echo waymad: ""The numbers are huge, the Councillors are regarded as a set of ever-changing clown shoes around a distant table, and the main driving forces are the Peter Principle and the tendency of large organisations to ossify.""

And you think their "wealth" is sourced locally?
Democracy is easy when theres plenty to go round

No way more council, they are no longer representative...they are more middle management which we need to get rid off,,,, and get some real democracy going.. user pays, user says. Make central government earn their money.

Given that LGNZ's Localism project is in partnership with The New Zealand Initiative (a public think tank and business membership organisation formed in 2012 from the merger with NZ Business Round Table) is the last group we need in this discussion about Local Government. Excellent article David. Reading articles from the Chief Ombusman just shows how divorced the NZ public have become from decision information made by our Councils, particularly those constructed under Workshops and Exclusion from Meetings. The lack of Meet the Candidate Meetings and the lack of Resident and Ratepayer's meetings. I also dislike the attitude "you voted for us to make the decisions for you" that has become pervasive. We did not but that too has become persuasive over the past 10 years. One Mayor some years ago said that too my area and he was gone at the next Election. The other issue is the known Political Party candidates stand for behind "labels". I hope the review of how LGNZ is governed is ripped apart and realigned with true citizen representation. Dreams are free.

Localised decision making makes sense. In theory a local council knows what's right for its district and its people much more than the lawmakers in Wellington.

Auckland elects 20 councilors, 1 mayor and 42 MPs. In Auckland local government is much less informed of local issues than central government.

This is probably because MPs are easier to get in touch with that the majority of Council managers.

the trouble is Local govt has very limited control over factors outside their influence ... like immigration, legislation, resource pressures, community debt pressures, GROWTH pressures ...
Add in decades of infrastructure neglect when all councils undercharged rates to keep everyone happy and we have a viability problem.

So instead of a viable downsizing plan ahead, they have morphed into a lazy middle management checklist exercise.

No one wants to say it but we cant afford to maintain the infrastructure we have now, yet we add more ...

A big problem with this idea is lack of checks and balances. Central govt has alot of due process to observe in enacting policy, such as the Select Committee process. Say what you like, but there is transparency and a media that will dig, or be given info from opposing sides. But with local govt, the fourth estate is pretty much dead in the regions. What media that survives cannot risk upsetting those in local power for fear of losing income, employment, or access. It’s a recipe for the cosy old boys’ club to act with impunity. And they do.

I used to be quite keen for "localisation" but given the anti-free speech actions from Phil Goff I am not so keen now. God help us if he had more control over areas of our lives.

David is right. Strong local leadership is the future, however, not in its current incarnation that's for sure. The Swiss system is the best that I've seen but to apply to NZ we need better trust, a lot more wisdom and much better management than we currently 'enjoy'. One of the downsides of democracy is that all the deadheads head to the places that they can hide or don't have to make a profit, hence the slow, frustrating and fallible format we currently have. What I do know is that both local and central governments are run by socialists and therefore decision making is a painful and long winded process with variable results. Perhaps this version of democracy has run its course? Perhaps what we've got is now so diluted, the only way to get better is start again. However, this topic/article is exactly what we should be talking about as strong local & regional leadership may well be the future.

Part of the problem is the size of the available talent pool.

There are six million New Zealanders, but a million talented individuals are offshore. . .

And the revenue base? How will this shift of power and responsibility be funded?

NO. NZ only has a population of 4.8m. We already have too many local authorities.

As a sitting Councillor, I tend to agree with David’s comments. One issue not mentioned is the Local Government act and how that drives behavior. Endless consultation, which frankly doesn’t engage communities or simply invites well entrenched interest groups to control outcomes.

There is an increasing “expectations gap” between citizens and Councillors. Councillors are becoming ever more activist, rolling out their own particular projects, whereas citizens are generally electing them to oversee the delivery of basic infrastructure and services.

There are rarely any detailed campaign platforms, given the lack of voter interest. A well known name or catchy slogan usually does the trick.

The addition of Well-being back into LG, will bring further costs as LG moves further into the remit of Central Government. That’s is not to say there aren’t issues that need addressing. The question i always ask, to no avail, is “why are we funding this”, and “isn’t this a central government job”.

This suggests to me that, before shifting more powers to local government (a good idea in part, especially reinvesting share of GST from Tourism and economic development), we need to redefine with great clarity exactly what local government should be delivering and managing. Added to that we need more clarity over the connection between Central Government and local government. They operate with two different systems, and like different software programs, find it hard to communicate in the same language. The Christchurch Earthquake Recovery and Rebuild experience is a salutary lesson in that.

My feeling is that Local Government needs a restructuring so that it becomes a local version of Central Government, operating with similar principles, but using a frame of subsidiarity to place local decision making on local issues within local communities.

At the moment, the system is not really delivering.

A good comment, Raf. Re consultation, one of our local residents' association chairs nailed it for me: she said that there's only so much oxygen available to engage in consultations, and the sheer triviality of most of them, leaves little to nothing for the really important ones. And it's a wonderful CYA for the Unelected Staff - 'but, we Consulted yez all, and ye said nowt, so we went ahead with what we were gonna do anyway....'.

The issue is simply one of, as you say, having suitable processes, and applying sensible weightings to the matters flowing through those processes.

Oh, and exposing the Staff Agendas for what they are via the sunlight of a local equivalent of Select Committees.

Excellent points, raf and waymad. Re exposing staff agendas, I really despair at the current lack of council accountability. Recently my eye was caught by a business proposal for a small town that i could see was inappropriate for the area and in the long-term would erode certain qualities of the town. A simple dive into the companies register, some cross-referencing with proposal names and council names, and then more of that with media reports online, threw up some connections that should have been clarified in the interests of due process. They didn’t even bother, so tamed is the media now, and so unfettered are the agendas.

No, no, it couldn't be..... was it....Oamaru?