Local Government Magazine
Elizabeth Hughes

Turkeys and Christmas

Turkeys and Christmas - Featured Image - Local Government - December 2017

The local in local government is a double-edged sword, says Elizabeth Hughes.

Central government intersects with the lives of people in a broad sense, enabling central government politicians (MPs) to focus on the big picture (as they should) and to leave management and delivery to their departments and executives. They also have the blessing of a manifesto or party line to stick to. Most citizens understand this – whether consciously, or unconsciously – and very rarely would expect an MP to sort out a departmental issue.
On the other hand, local government activity affects the lives of people directly, usually in real time, in their literal and metaphorical back yards. And, while the elected member’s job is also to act as a big-picture governor, they often end up getting intimately involved in their neighbour’s business – fences, parking, stormwater, consents.
The double-edged effect of this, and one that council executives frustratingly grapple with, is the tendency for some politicians to delve unhelpfully into the operational aspects of the business. This can take many forms.
Some are subtle. There is forensic debate over small line items of expenditure instead of a focus on long-term investment strategies for capital programmes. There are broad brush statements about ‘reducing staff numbers’ to be more efficient. And there are ad hoc debates about constituent requests that don’t fit an adopted policy: think trees.
Other forms of ‘help’ are more specific and based on councillors’ personal skillsets: firing up the digger to clear a path or drain (retired contractors), directing council communication (retired PR experts) or solving transport problems (retired bus drivers).
And the frustrations are not limited to the executives. Many local government politicians are elected precisely on the premise that they will get in and ‘fix’ operational aspects of the council. They say they will create efficiencies, reduce staff numbers or cut spending. Not until they get voted in, do they realise that’s just not how it works.
The traditional media contribute to, and reinforce, these misguided expectations.
Reporters, whose understanding of council’s governance / management split seems to be based in the last century, focus questions and attention on local government politicians at a level of detail on which they would never challenge central government politicians.
It must be noted that mayors and councillors generally don’t get reported on, or voted out, for “getting too deep into operations”.

In line with the spirit that one feels in December, here is a wish list for 2018.

Dear Santa
There may have been a few minor glitches around water quality, roads, flooding, parking, public toilets, trees, cemeteries, drainage, consents, infill, biosecurity and mowing. And perhaps some individuals may not have entirely lived up to codes of conduct. But we think we have mostly been conscientious. By and large, we have delivered what our communities needed, managed spending within the fiscal envelope that was approved and made plastic bags despised.
In light of this, what we would like this Christmas is:

  • our residents to be warmly housed, safe, and protected from natural disasters
  • all our roads to be smooth and passable
  • the nitrogen levels in our waterways arrested
  • all consent applications to be correctly filled in the first time
  • no biosecurity threat to enter our boundaries
  • trees being managed as per our adopted policy instead of being negotiated one by one at every council meeting
  • all plastic bags, used tyres and feral cats gone
  • passenger transport to be full
  • and for everyone else to happily pay a premium for the privilege of parking in town
  • to not wake up to new legislation that is costly to implement
  • all freedom campers pooing in the right places
  • no trolls on our Facebook page
  • our long-term plan to magic up some new forms of funding
  • to have the same minister for one whole year
  • all the great work we do, to be recognised, valued and appreciated.

Yours sincerely,
Councils of New Zealand

This article was first published in the December 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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