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Fixing a broken relationship

By Vaughan Winiata, VFormation, and small business advocate.

Dollars to Doughnuts is an old betting term dating back to the 1880s, it was used to emphasize certainty or a sure bet. When it comes to our local governments there are things of which I’m certain, hence my use of the term in this column.

On occasion, and based on my own hands-on experience I have exercised vocality about the need for change with how local governments are led when it comes to the small business community.

When I began working closely with the small business sector, I spent considerable time getting to know as many business owners as I could, it’s not difficult to do – just walk into any small business and strike up a conversation with the owner.

Most owners are flattered someone is interested in their business and will chat away obligingly. I usually open with the weather (as we Kiwis are fond of doing) before moving on to the big stuff like the wider economy, market conditions, and, of course, local government.

My chats always start out as open and friendly, until I utter those two words ‘local government’ at which point the eyes roll, and the conversational tone suddenly becomes one of frustration and dissent. No longer are we talking about normal people in the community. Far from it, we are now talking about some fiefdom in a mythical land far, far away that’s bulging at the seams with overpaid faceless bureaucrats.

Dollars to doughnuts this happens every time.

Small Business owners seem convinced that the sole purpose of their council is to eliminate any form of commercial success from their environment. While ‘business-friendly-council’ is a term used by secure salaried local government bureaucrats, you’ll never hear any small business owner say the same words.

A visit to New Zealand’s biggest retail cemetery – the misleadingly named ‘Auckland CBD’ – is monumental proof that the term ‘business-friendly-council is just empty rhetoric. To call central Auckland a ‘business district’ is less accurate than calling a donkey a Melbourne Cup contender.

Dollars to doughnuts, most discussions with small business owners unearth hostility, mistrust, and no confidence in their local government. Sometimes eavesdropping customers will even chip in on the emotional conversations to vent their own spleens, all in agreement and supportive of the frustrations small businesses endure with their local council.

Meanwhile, over at the fiefdom and inside the local government machines, anyone who is anybody involved with the actual policymaking for the small business sector will know the feeling of frustration when the only people who approve of their grand plans are their own more politically savvy and job security-conscious staff members. Dollars to doughnuts, I bet that is a ring dinger to be true.

While I appear to be painting a picture that is bleak, it raises the big question – why is the relationship between Small Business and local government broken? Or, why is it that most of what originates from our ‘city halls’ is viewed as disengaged self-prophecy, fit only for the squandering of ratepayer’s money?

Again, and dare I say it, Auckland’s CBD is a perfect example of exactly that. There is no questioning that the local council has a grand plan, but that doesn’t stop small business owners in the area from doubting their futures and predicting commercial failure.

It’s also a fact that councils have little empathy when it comes to small businesses and their commercial realities. The time has come to deal with that, which means it’s time to try something new.

In a little over 12 months from today, campaigning starts for our next Local Body elections, and the Small Communities will the perfect opportunity to make their expectations crystal clear. That expectation is the only mayoral and council candidate deserving of a vote, are those committed to fixing the broken relationship.

Small businesses are emotional and highly charged creatures while local government is just a bureaucracy. Unfortunately, local government is not emotional, and nor does it like doing emotion. Unless of course, it’s a ratepayer-funded public relations campaign.

Fixing a broken relationship of this magnitude requires commitment from all stakeholders to the long-term-game, which requires better conversations and engagement. Right now, that does not exist, and while it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge all the good work being done by some Councils, pockets of best practice are simply not enough.

To be real and effective, all small business stakeholders – owners, staff, customers, landlords, and interest organisations need to trust that their Council lays out the welcome mat and will provide meaningful support.

That welcome mat is the first step towards a sustainable foundation and change in local government mindset, a mindset that is open and aware. It is a foundation of awareness of what small business communities want and, importantly, don’t want.

Do councils have the appetite for such ‘risky’ thinking and engagement? Let’s hope so, because without it there will never be a healthy local commercial environment, the source of much of the councils rate-based income.

So, there we have it, dollars for doughnuts may be a term for certainty, but will there be any certainty at the 2022 Local Body Elections? This is where the reality bites, for a career politician, there is but a wafer-thin line between representing the people and populism. That means the 2022 local body election campaigns will be certain for two things.

Number one, there will be candidates committed to community engagement, which includes fixing the broken relationship with small businesses.

Number two, there will be candidates who are recycled, repurposed career politicians deft at delivering populist spoon-fed narratives and looking for their next paid gig.

What is not certain for unsuspecting voters is being able to clearly tell the difference between the two.

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