The local in local government is a double-edged sword, says Elizabeth Hughes.
Central government intersects with the lives of people in a broad sense, enabling central government politicians (MPs) to focus on the big picture (as they should) and to leave management and delivery to their departments and executives. They also have the blessing of a manifesto or party line to stick to. Most citizens understand this – whether consciously, or unconsciously – and very rarely would expect an MP to sort out a departmental issue.
On the other hand, local government activity affects the lives of people directly, usually in real time, in their literal and metaphorical back yards. And, while the elected member’s job is also to act as a big-picture governor, they often end up getting intimately involved in their neighbour’s business – fences, parking, stormwater, consents.
The double-edged effect of this, and one that council executives frustratingly grapple with, is the tendency for some politicians to delve unhelpfully into the operational aspects of the business. This can take many forms.
Some are subtle. There is forensic debate over small line items of expenditure instead of a focus on long-term investment strategies for capital programmes. There are broad brush statements about ‘reducing staff numbers’ to be more efficient. And there are ad hoc debates about constituent requests that don’t fit an adopted policy: think trees.
Other forms of ‘help’ are more specific and based on councillors’ personal skillsets: firing up the digger to clear a path or drain (retired contractors), directing council communication (retired PR experts) or solving transport problems (retired bus drivers).
And the frustrations are not limited to the executives. Many local government politicians are elected precisely on the premise that they will get in and ‘fix’ operational aspects of the council. They say they will create efficiencies, reduce staff numbers or cut spending. Not until they get voted in, do they realise that’s just not how it works.
The traditional media contribute to, and reinforce, these misguided expectations.
Reporters, whose understanding of council’s governance / management split seems to be based in the last century, focus questions and attention on local government politicians at a level of detail on which they would never challenge central government politicians.
It must be noted that mayors and councillors generally don’t get reported on, or voted out, for “getting too deep into operations”.
This article was first published in the December 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.