Local Government Magazine
Elizabeth Hughes

Who cares about local government? asks Elizabeth Hughes.

Check out the relevance index and the participation gap.

Let’s face it. People just do not care about local government. While this is not a news flash, there is evidence of situational blindness affecting many who work and serve in the sector when presented with this fact. As the 2018-28 LTP process draws to a close and the build-up begins to the 2019 elections, councils and local government organisations will turn their minds to ‘engaging’ communities, raising awareness around new projects and looking for ways to increase voter turnout.

One can safely predict that many innovative, stylish, multi-channelled and well-intentioned efforts will be made to achieve these worthy outcomes.

And, as usual, there will be no significant change. Many commentators blame this on “citizen apathy” (piling judgement upon the sluggish masses).

How about considering, instead, that desertion of participation in democratic processes is due to local government lacking relevance to your average citizen. And local government, viewing citizens through its own self-important lens, is itself failing to make the connection.

The Hughes “relevance of local government” index (2018) describes four people groups that can be used to predict levels of participation.

Group 1 – Everything is relevant

These people work for councils, are elected to councils, or are:

• consultants;

• people who stood for council but didn’t get elected; or

• local government journalists / commentators.

Many in this group believe the rest of the community cares (or should care) about local government. This is largely due to the kinds of people they hang about with – who are either people like them or come from group two.

Group 2 – Sometimes relevant

This group consists of:

• citizens who genuinely care about anything to do with local “issues”;

• letter to the editor writers / keyboard warriors (often drawn from a sub-grouping of retired accountants, engineers, retailers and academics);

• serial submitters; and

• special interest fanatics.

Relevance to them will be around the big issues, for example:


• changing the council’s logo; or

• parking.

According to the Hughes relevance index, groups one and two make up no more than four to five percent of the adult population of any community and will almost always consist of participators. Important point to note: this is not many actual people.


Group 3 – Transactional relevance

A council’s relevance to group three citizens comes mainly from delivery of services (another name for this group is “customers”). For example:

• taking out a library book;

• going to the pools;

• getting a parking ticket;

• registering a dog;

• needing a consent; or

• buying a house.

Customers also experience relevance (a connection to) the council when their street is dug up, construction starts next door, a playground is built or there is pollution in a neighbourhood stream – because these things matter to them right here,
right now.

Numbers in this group might occasionally peak at, say, 40-50 percent of the population (eg elections). However, more often than not they will hover around the 20 percent. And this 20 percent will be different people at any one time.

Importantly, the opportunity to engage with customers can go from high to low in a local government nanosecond (using the local government three to 10-year clock). Their time is precious.

Group 4 – Irrelevant

This is by far the largest and most consistent group of citizens – often over 60 percent of the population.

This group of people is not lazy, apathetic or even ‘disengaged’ (as often described by people in groups 1 and 2). They are generally happy with what the council provides, even appreciative of the fact that local government stuff happens without them ever having to really think about it. Even paying rates or fees, does not engage them.

The ‘irrelevants’ accept that their council is what it is. They do not, and will not, participate.

Local government’s adherence to its delusion of relevance contributes to significant resources repeatedly being invested in targeting people who do not care, and who have no need to care.

If the sector believes more people need to participate in democratic processes, then focusing on every customer touchpoint at every time, and the opportunities these provide, might be a good place to start.

This article was first published in the August 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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