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Collaboration between councils

Full steam ahead? - Local Government Perspectives 2017

SOLGM questions whether change in the local government sector is happening fast enough and in the best ways.

Karen Thomas, Chief Executive, SOLGM

This time last year I said that 2015 was notable for the public rejection of amalgamations as the panacea for the sector’s perceived ills. At the time I was concerned that this might be seen as an endorsement of the status quo rather than a strong endorsement that local representation is what matters to local communities.

Around the world ‘people’ have spoken this year, giving Brexit to the UK and Donald Trump to the USA. Why? Commentators have reflected on this ‘backlash’ postulating that voters have felt abandoned by their political representatives, no longer persuaded that local interests in their local communities are being represented.

So what lesson might we take from that here in New Zealand? In my view it’s this – people are concerned about the things that touch their lives the most – and that puts local government squarely in the frame to assist communities to articulate and achieve their aspirations for their ‘place’.

Local Government 2002 Amendment Bill (No.2)

But, while communities want their local government to remain local, with decision-making ‘close to home’ there’s also been a challenge to management to get sharper (“most cost effective” as the legislation says) regarding delivery of services.

Gaining visibility of how councils might be doing that is important because there’s been a push from central government for councils to achieve that by working more collaboratively, culminating this year in the introduction by Minister Peseta Sam Lotu-liga of the Local Government 2002 Amendment Bill (No.2) to give effect to the National Government’s Better Local Services reforms.

Collaboration is on the rise

SOLGM knows that significant collaboration between councils is already happening – a ‘rise of the regions’ if you like. Examples abound from the 11 South Island councils that are behind the Canterbury Regional Economic Strategy to the Northland Transportation Alliance which is expected to deliver $18 million of benefits over the next 10 years to councils in the Northland region.

Additionally there’s the ICT shared services being implemented for the city councils of Porirua, Upper Hutt and Wellington City, and the Wellington Water CCO, aimed at offering comprehensive ICT infrastructure management and support that is scalable for other councils to join.

Accelerated Leadership Programme

And SOLGM’s LGLeadership Pathways Accelerated Leadership Programme is another example. We’ve deliberately used a regional delivery model so that tier three and tier four managers from councils within specific parts of the country can get together in a learning environment to develop relationships that can then be transferred to collaborative regionally-based work programmes.

We are particularly excited about the initiative of the four Northland-based chief executives who have committed to investing in all their third and fourth tier managers using this model. This augurs well as they embark on more joined 
up work.

Our perception that collaborations are on the rise is backed up by the results of a survey we sent out late last year to gauge just how widely shared service and other joined-up arrangements exist within the sector. Thirty-five councils provided responses and the key findings confirmed that collaborations in some form are very common:

  • 79 percent of respondents noted they were involved in more than six shared service arrangements with 18 percent noting they were in three to five arrangements.
  • Two thirds of respondents cited there were no barriers to shared service arrangements. The majority of respondents who had encountered a barrier, found it in the operational aspect of a shared service arrangement, rather than the establishment of an arrangement.
  • Some of the barriers encountered were legislative. Two respondents noted barriers in the Rates Rebate Act, while two noted New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) regulations, and two cited unspecified issues with the Local Government Act.
  • All respondents were involved in a shared service arrangement with other councils, with 53 percent also involved with a company. Similarly, 85 percent used a contract for service as the form of shared service arrangement.
  • Administration, economic development, roading / land transportation, libraries and tourism were the most common service areas for shared arrangements.

Speed of collaboration

The point I’m making, and that we made in our submission on the Bill when we appeared before the Select Committee, is that most if not all councils are already actively pursuing collaborative efficiencies so it seems somewhat premature to conclude that change is not happening. The question is, is it happening fast enough and in the best ways?

This is a hard task – there are 78 local governments in New Zealand, not a homogeneous ‘one’. Communities, voter complacency notwithstanding, will and should fight for what’s right for them. Sometimes they’ll have enough in common regionally to work together. Sometimes there will be enough commonality to make a national solution the right one.

And sometimes the issues will be very specific to the local community and the local solution is the only right solution. Having the flexibility to choose is the principle we should all fight for.

And so what does all that have to do with Brexit and Donald Trump? It’s a reminder that we are here to serve New Zealanders, just like the public service of New Zealand, but local governments do this on a community by community basis. Further, the challenge for local government managers, is to be able to easily demonstrate a continuing focus on ‘sharpness’ of approach and attention to ensuring effectiveness at each point along the way.

Being less than optimally effective opens the opportunity for some to argue for full-scale amalgamation which in turn poses the risk of decision-making moving away from the people.

Whatever else might happen in 2017, I’m hoping to discover more and more examples of local governments around New Zealand getting into smart ways of working with neighbouring councils, in an increasing range of areas for the benefit of our communities and all New Zealanders.

This article was first published in Local Government Perspectives 2017.

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