Local Government Magazine
Elizabeth HughesLocal Democracy

From the bottom up – giving it a sniff

By Elizabeth Hughes.
This might be an understatement, but change is in the wind for local government. 
Obviously, the entire sector is fully engaged in this process – sniffing the winds of change and responding accordingly through conversations, meetings and workshops and with submissions, papers, theses and reports.  

Not unexpectedly, the broader population has not yet been absorbed and engrossed in the sniffing. There is a palpable lack of any interest whatsoever from the general populous considering what the future of their local government might look like. And who can blame them?  Local government is far removed from the list of things that might occupy most people’s time. Until, that is, it does.

Sadly, this lack of engagement means that the proposed changes, when they do come, will not necessarily reflect a ‘bottom-up’ approach to the new paradigm but instead will reflect the views of those who already think they know best, ie those already heavily invested in the institutions that currently make up our local government system.

Three things that do resonate and would form part of a bottom-up perspective (if ordinary, common-folk were asked) are that the changes are democratic, relevant, and funded.

Democratic: On paper, democracy is simple. It literally means – ruled by the people. The key point of democracy, and the part that makes it worthwhile, is that the people have a voice. And what motivates and engages most people in having a voice?  Their neighbourhood – the place they live, the place they care out.  

Unfortunately, local government as it currently operates (and has done for 40 years) has largely removed the focus from neighbourhoods to one of districts, cities and regions. The hierarchy (and no matter what was intended, the current system is totally hierarchical) has tended to neutralise this important motivating factor. 

Having a relationship with the place you live is what excites people to get involved and to care about the decisions that are made there. So, instead of widening the democratic gap between citizens and their ‘council’, the new paradigm should be closing it.

This needn’t necessarily mean more elected people. It could just mean building the capability of neighbourhood groups and cohorts so they can contribute much more meaningfully and purposefully to the decisions about their local area.

Those who exist in local government now, and all the legislation that has been produced to ‘enable democratic local decision-making’, would say this is already the case. Clearly, it’s not.

Relevant: We are now nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st century and local government is still operating as if it were in the last.    

This century so far has been defined by a seismic shift in people-power. This includes being closer to acceptance of diversity and having tools that give us greater accessibility and reach into every person’s homes. People now have new ways of communicating and connecting to each other and a vast array of channels through which we can now receive and respond to information.   

Local government’s adherence to its delusion of relevance – admittedly prescribed by central government’s legislative processes – contributes to significant resource repeatedly being invested in targeting people who do not care, and who have no need to care (think LTPs, submissions processes, ‘town hall meetings’ etc…)

A new local government paradigm will put technology front and centre to enable what they do to reach people, and to be more targeted, meaningful and relevant to the people it serves. This includes democratic and communication processes that come to me – not me having to find my way to them.

Funded: If you set up a system of democracy, governance and decision-making that has land ownership as its core funding model, then non-land-owners will not see the purpose in having a voice. This is evident in the fact that as property ownership has declined, so too has participation in local democratic decision-making.

Since the nationwide restructuring of local government in 1989, turnout has declined from 57 percent to 42.2 percent in 2019. At the same time, home ownership rates have fallen for all age groups – but especially for those in their 20s and 30s. How many people in this age group are around council tables and/or how many renters are there around council tables? In 1991, 61 percent of those aged 25-29, owned their own homes, and 79 percent of voters in their 30s. In 2018 that was down to 44 percent and 59 percent, respectively. 

Having a system of funding that is not focused on 19th and 20th century thinking around land ownership – especially when so much of the 21st century is focused on community building, people-power, sustainability, and resilience – would empower all-of-community decision-making.

If we want everyone to have a voice and to participate in local decision-making, then we need to find a way to fund it that does not rely solely on property ownership.

And to be more equitable – from the bottom up. LG

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