What kind of leaders does local government need? As the sector gears up for its triennial elections in October, Ruth Le Pla asks LGNZ president Lawrence Yule whether it’s time for a whole new type of thinking.
Across the country 1646 elected members are currently serving their communities. They’re mayors, councillors and community board members. Yet, typically, between 33 and 40 percent of elected members change each election – whether voluntarily or involuntarily. What types of thinking would bring the most benefit to the sector as a whole?
Local Government Magazine: What are the big issues coming up in the next three years and what does this mean for both new and existing members?
Lawrence Yule: Some of the issues we have to deal with are changing and so too is some of the leadership that’s required to deal with them.
From 2002 to 2012, councils have largely got on top of asset and financial management. Generally that’s been the focus of effort and that was specifically spelt out in the Local Government Act 2002.
But now new issues are emerging which effectively mean it should be a given that those things are done.
The levels of leadership that will be required will be around climate change, demographic change and increasingly – this involves demographic change – around the economic development and sustainability of our communities.
Our thinking time should be on those complex but really important other issues.
Would you also tie in to that some of the 3Waters and infrastructure issues?
These are things that LGNZ has been signalling for a while.
Correct. They are the big issues for the future. So the 3Waters work completely ties in with infrastructure. What we’re doing with risk management ties in with natural hazards, it ties in with financial capacity and long-term sustainability. So they’re all in the mix.
Leadership is changing into a much bigger space.
So what kinds of skills, attributes and attitudes do elected members need to best handle these issues?
We need a more diverse set of skills than may have been in the past. People who would have perhaps considered standing in the past may have had an interest in an issue with their local road which they considered important or a really important issue with what the community does with its water supply. Or they may have said the rates burden was too high.
But, as well as that, I think we now need a forward-thinking group of people who understand there are some big, really complex and difficult issues to deal with outside of those basics.
For many people that would be an exciting place for them to be: to say, “well, what are we going to do about climate change or demographic change? How are we going to help our people here?”
To be clear, you’re saying people need to care about these issues as well as about all the things they’ve cared about in the past: the state of a local road or the need for a new swimming pool, for instance?
So in a sense it’s about bigger-picture, and perhaps more connected, thinking than in the past?
Yes. My point is that in fundamental terms councils do three things: they operate a regulatory environment that deals with the RMA and the Building Act, for example; they provide services – which are roads, waters, libraries, all that sort of thing; and they provide leadership.
I’m saying that in the future, there’s going to have to be a much bigger focus on leadership because these big issues have to be considered.
They’re hard, but equally, they’re exciting. They allow you to put your thinking time and energy into these big issues that we all have to grapple with.
So are there any particular skills, attributes and attitudes that individual elected members may need in this emerging environment?
Elected members bring their own skill set: whether that’s their learnings from life, or business- or community-based skills. But, more and more importantly, people have to have a very open mind about how we can resolve these issues and be prepared to look at the big picture more than we might have in the past.
We’ve got to think about the challenges which are really concerning to many people. If you’re in a small town and it’s got a static or declining population, what does that mean for you? How do you manage that?
If you’re in a coastal community and the sea level is going to rise by a metre, how are you going to deal with that?
So a slightly more holistic view of macro issues is required than may have been in the past.
That sounds like a much harder stance to campaign on than “I’ll get you a local swimming pool: vote for me”.
I still think there will be the element of “I’ll get you a local swimming pool: vote for me”. But it may also include, “by the way, I’m really interested in how we adapt this community for climate change or how we could keep our young people here”, for example. So there’s a bit of both.
Is there a need to encourage greater demographic diversity?
We’ve always felt that. If you go to any local government gathering, it’s mostly male, mostly grey hair and, generally, mostly white. So diversity is something that we actively encourage. On my own council, for instance, we have a really good gender and ethnic balance.
How will the LGNZ 2050 initiative fit into thinking about the bigger picture?
It absolutely fits into this because it’s around getting people to think about what the issues are between now and 2050 rather than only about the pothole at the end of the street and asking why it hasn’t been fixed for a long time.
There are whole new dimensions – such as the Maori economy post-settlement – where there are opportunities for things to be done.
LGNZ – and this is something I really support – is trying to look at a much longer game.
Are you going to stand again?
I won’t be making that decision until April. I’ve done this for 15 years and there’s an element in my community that say I’ve done a good job but ‘maybe we need someone new’ so I’m assessing all that.
One more thing: I’ve found my career in local government incredibly rewarding and stimulating. Sometimes it’s tough but it’s a worthwhile thing to do.
If you had your time again would you do it again?
Yes. I would.
• Redacted from an interview with Lawrence Yule.
This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.