Local Government Magazine

New times: New model

Former Hamilton mayor Julie Hardaker calls for a 21st century model for local government.

Local government is a big and complex business with many moving parts, and I wonder if the existing model is delivering full potential for communities.
Councils across New Zealand look after significant assets, and every aspect of individuals’ daily lives is impacted by council decisions.
Water and wastewater, rubbish collections, roads and footpaths, traffic light sequences, parks, swimming pools, art centres, stock effluent and crossings, how close to the boundary your house can be built, will the shops be open at Easter, how clean our waterways are. The list is endless.
It’s a tough job being a councillor in local government; balancing infrastructure investment with community needs, investing for the future to avoid being left behind while responding to the wants of diverse communities that have little understanding of regional challenges or any other group’s interests – all that matters is their own backyard.
Councillors have an almost paranoid obsession with keeping rates low. On top of that, governments can pass on decision-making (and implementation costs) often without any consideration of the impact. Recent examples of that include local alcohol plans which have cost councils thousands of dollars in public consultation and court battles.
The average voter has too busy a life to be across all the information of council and central government to offer valuable perspective and make fully-informed decisions themselves.
When I was mayor, I often found voters confused over which branch of government made which decision about various aspects of their lives. In this world of information overload, many of us yearn for the days when things seemed simpler.
Yet I have seen that many councils spend a lot of time procrastinating. They use information-gathering and community consultation as a tool to avoid making difficult decisions. There has been a long history of bold decisions costing politicians their jobs.
The result of this is often slow, cumbersome and watered-down decision-making and sometimes even decision avoidance. The public and business community lose interest because they think they cannot work with, or change, the system.
I understand. Negative media coverage and public criticism cost votes. The voice of New Zealanders (social media) doesn’t get excited about bold decisions. I found the voice often critical and attacking of change.
And here we are today; voter turnout in local government elections is the lowest it’s been in decades. That’s despite campaigns by the sector to get the public excited about participating in the local government process and voting.
The current local government framework is decades old. The last major change was in 1989. Looking back, I wonder if the pace of change in the information age and the busyness of people’s lives are impeding people’s ability to make a valuable contribution to public processes under the current framework.
Is the framework right? Does it need to change to improve engagement outcomes with communities and to get the public’s confidence back? Is the current local government model the right one to grapple with the costs of the future?
The structure of decision-making and the ability to generate revenue has remained pretty much the same for almost 30 years. Apart from forming the Auckland Supercity and a few boundary changes, council boundaries have been the same as well.
Councils derive their revenue from rates. Only a few of them are lucky enough to have other revenue streams. This means most councils are strapped for cash.
Some councils have a handful of ratepayers but thousands of tourists. They are expected to provide and pay for all the infrastructure that is needed to service tourism such as high-standard roads.
People want efficient timely decisions that don’t break the bank. Councils need the funding mechanisms to enable them to deliver now and in the future. Rates revenue isn’t enough.
Councillors need to make decisions themselves without constantly asking the people who put them there to decide for them.
The operating model for local government needs to be one for the 21st century: where change is happening rapidly, where decisions are made at the pace of the private sector, where boundaries are no longer the determinant of communities and people have high expectations about the environment in which they live.

This article was first published in the October 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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