ELIZABETH HUGHES / ELIZABETH HUGHES COMMUNICATION.
Let me pinch myself. Is it really 2019 or are we still in 1919?
Look around your council chamber. Ask yourself whether this group of people comes close to representing the diversity of people who live in your city, district or region. (Notwithstanding that it may well indeed be representative of the diversity of people who vote in your community – but that is a column for another day.)
Then ask yourself whether you care. If you don’t care, there is no need to read any further.
The answer to the first question is not really anything current councils or elected members can influence. It is what it is. The answer to the second question is something that any elected or staff member can influence and change. If you care enough to do so.
Recently a couple of media grabs provided a stark reminder regarding diversity in local government. The demographic gap that struck me related to “age”.
One was a photo of some regional councillors. While they were all men (not unusual) and all ‘white’ (even less unusual) they all looked like they were well beyond the “mid-life crisis” speed bump. Like, seriously beyond it.
Another was about a council responding to a protest that happened to be led by some young people in their community. In this council, there is reportedly not one elected member under the age of 60 yet almost half of the population there is aged between 15 and 60.
An LGNZ young elected members’ hui last year was open to people “under the age of 40”. This age limit at least provided a boost to the potential attendee numbers because those aged under 30 only number 11.
EFFECTIVE ENGAGEMENT IS NOT VERY HARD TO DO.
Highlighting these is not intended to blame existing elected members for their age, nor to undermine the mandate that each has been given.
The largest number of people of voting age in this country is in the 30-50 age bracket followed closely by the 18-30 age group.
The largest number of people elected are in the 50-70 age bracket.
The skewing of local decision-making, based on older peoples’ perspectives, is inevitable – unless something proactive is done about it.
That is why engagement matters. Engagement cannot be “assumed” or put into the “if we have time” basket or “let’s put something on social media so we can say we tried to engage with young folk” or “let’s have an open day” and expect that the missing demographic will come to us.
Engagement needs to be at the highest level with specific direction that the widest possible range of community views matter for effective decision-making.
(Note: this is different to “consultation” – which is a formal process used to get your council’s completed proposals, plans and flashy draft documents rubber-stamped through the legal hoops.)
Effective engagement is not very hard to do.
First, you take a look around the council chamber and identify the demographic gaps (age, sex, ethnicity, income etc) – particularly if there is an issue or decision required on something that has significant interest to an identified group of citizens whose views are not clearly represented.
Second, you sincerely seek out views and then you listen to them. So, if the gap in your demographic profile shows a lack of young people – find some young people, gather them together (possibly incentivise them), provide some background information, ask them the relevant questions and listen to their answers with an open mind.
Third, make some time to let those young people you heard from know how their views were considered and what the outcome was or is.
No matter what the demographic gap, engagement requires a genuine desire and commitment to having the conversation. And this costs nothing. It’s that simple. It’s: “frankly, my dear, I do give a damn”.
This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.