Local Government Magazine
Guest editorial LG Magazine

Fixing local government: get the basics right 

By Monique Poirier, campaigns manager, Auckland Ratepayers’ Alliance.

The case for local government boils down to the belief that a local community has a better knowledge and understanding of its interests – and the issues it faces – than does central government.

Beyond that widely agreed sentiment, however, there is room for debate. There have been calls for meaningful reforms to local government for many years now. Recent changes include those made to the Local Government Act 2002 in 2019 illustrate perspectives of the purpose of local government in New Zealand

Previously, the Act provided that this purpose was;“to meet the current and future needs of communities for good-quality local infrastructure, local public services and performance of regulatory functions in a way that is most cost-effective for households and businesses”.

That has now been replaced with; “to promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of communities in the present and for the future”.

Dispensing with “cost-effectiveness” in favour of “well-being” as the measurement of success of a local authority raises many questions, especially for ratepayers.

Getting bogged down on the merits or flaws of this amendment, however, seems pointless when taking into account the substantive practical problems facing local government.

What it does point to, though, is a tendency to make reforms and changes that might look good on paper but lack real substance and transformative potential.

The briefing released to the incoming Minister of Local Government at the end of 2020 raised a number of unsurprising problems facing local and regional authorities, including inadequate legislation that is failing to support robust and transparent community decision-making and representation.

The most significant reform identified was that of the “three waters” – that is, reforming the system for regulating and delivering drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater services.

Importantly, the briefing also called for a review of Auckland Council’s governance arrangements. This was a welcome suggestion. Ten years after it’s amalgamation experiment, the Super City is well due for a review, especially when considering some of the significant and longstanding challenges it is facing right now.

But there are more basic issues that should be considered if local government reforms are to be meaningful.

Ensuring that local government meets the preferences and needs of citizens means addressing more than just structural or organisational problems. Those might improve how councils function in the future, but do not necessarily engage ordinary people’s feelings towards, and experiences and understanding of, local government on a day-to-day level.

Big picture reforms are, of course, important and much needed. However, it is clear from voter turnout in local elections that New Zealanders do not see local democracy as a priority. To that end, we also need to be looking at deeply entrenched practices within council culture that make it difficult and frustrating for both citizens to be engaged, and for councils to function efficiently and effectively.

The following identifies a number of concerns that are frequently raised with the Ratepayers’ Alliance by ratepayers, councillors and officials from both Auckland, and councils across the country.

These issues may not seem exciting. Yet if we want local government to promote the well-being of the community, they must be addressed head on.

Most often discussed is the relationship between central and local government which is not cohesive. The lack of co-ordinated planning and execution between the two was on stark display with Auckland light rail but is also widespread across the building and transport sectors.

There is also a level of distrust between central and local government in terms of accountability to the public. Councils with records of poor performance are often quick to find ways to blame the government. At the same time, they will often take the blame for centrally imposed costs and taxes or instances where the government has failed to deliver.

The absence of accountability at the both the executive (mayoral) and administrative (non-elected officials) levels is a problem.

Like central government, local government is dominated by the executive branch. Unlike central government, however, there is no opportunity for councillors to ask written questions of the mayor.

All too often, decisions are made behind the closed doors of the mayoral office. Councillors report being left out in the cold without access to the information or resources they need to do their jobs. When councillors do make efforts to probe into matters further, they can be stonewalled by officials who answer to the executive.

How can voters feel represented appropriately by their councillor in such circumstances?

CEOs of council-controlled organisations are appointed, not elected. This gives ratepayers no effective ability to hold them accountable.

With no risk of being voted out at the next election, it is common for these CEOs to serve in their position longer than elected members. The risk here of non-elected functionaries – and not the mayor, councillors, or local board members – dictating long term strategy is obvious. Ratepayers are often left scratching their heads at decisions made by unelected officials when it is in fact politicians that were elected to be accountable to the voters (and thus make decisions).

The devolution of decision-making to local communities on matters particular to them (such as parks and libraries), often happens in an unclear and wasteful way. There isn’t always a distinct separation between regulatory and non-regulatory activities which leave elected members and council officials confused about their objectives and opens up the potential for waste,

There is also a troubling trend prioritising eye watering levels of expenditure on highly visible projects – like cycleways – but significantly underinvesting in important infrastructure.

Underground pipes may not be glitzy, but as Wellingtonians will be able to tell you, it turns out they are kind of important.

When ratepayers see the “nice to haves” occurring, and then are hit with a rates hike because councils find themselves in a financial hole, or in urgent need to improve or fix infrastructure, they are understandably left frustrated.

However, councils often fail to take any responsibility for wasteful or badly prioritised spending, instead simply finding ways to justify it.

Perhaps most concerning is the now strong culture of inevitability around rate increases. Councils across the country can increase revenue almost ad hoc without any political backlash.

Frequently, however, communities feel they will see little to no improvement in the services they receive.

Can you imagine if central government proposed a 10 percent tax increase year after year? The lack of resistance is indicative of the way citizens feel about local government; it is almost something imposed on them, rather than something of which they are part.

There are, of course, many other complaints about local government across the various local communities in New Zealand. They usually involve frustration at wasteful spending, a lack of transparency, accountability and a feeling that they are not being listened to.

That should come as no surprise. These are all classic complaints about the culture of government organisations and reform will not be easy.

It’s even difficult to think who would be responsible for addressing this culture, whether it’s from the top in the form of the Minister for Local Government, or if each council or authority would seek to address the problem.

However, drawing clear lines of responsibility between central and local government would be a good start to address the lack of cohesion between the two. This would make it more difficult for councils – or the government – to pass the buck when being held to account by the local community.

Reform of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 is also long overdue. Further still, it’s time that our elected representatives had the authority to exert some control over unelected officials who are not accountable to ratepayers.

What is certain, however, is that practical, basic reform is needed to look at ways to restore public confidence in local democracy.

If the focus isn’t on getting back to basics and meaningful accountability, it hardly matters what fancy language we use to describe the purpose of local government.

 

 

 

 

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