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The year that was. And the year ahead

The year that was. And the year ahead - Local Government Perspectives 2017

With elections and important new legislation being debated, 2016 was a big year for local government.

Sarah Lineham, Acting Assistant Auditor-General, Local Government

Reflections from our audits: Governance and accountability

Principles for effectively co-governing natural resources

Auckland Council: How it deals with complaints

The OAG’s blog

Happy New Year, everyone. The Office of the Auditor-General’s vision is that our work improves the performance of, and the public’s trust in, the public sector. I can think of three reports from 2016 that promoted this vision particularly well. They all have relevance for local government, so if you’re looking for some summer reading material I recommend them to you.

Reflections from our audits: Governance and accountability outlines eight elements of good governance applicable to every public sector organisation – big or small, central or local. It also has guidance on achieving strong governance and accountability in a project setting.

Principles for effectively co-governing natural resources identifies principles to consider when setting up and maintaining effective co-governance and co-management arrangements. Co-governance is an increasingly common arrangement across the country, and it is important that local government plays its part in these arrangements well.

Auckland Council: How it deals with complaints reviews Auckland’s work to refine and improve its complaints management process since amalgamation. This report is useful for any local authority as it sets out the important components of an effective complaints system.

Lessons from London

I had the privilege in 2016 of spending three months in London. Part of my time was spent on secondment with Lewisham Borough Council, where I had a first-hand look at how local government functions in the United Kingdom.

It was striking to realise how many issues and challenges both countries share, especially around managing population growth and decline in communities, addressing capability issues, and handling these issues in a highly political environment. The British public increasingly feels that local government is detached from the issues that really matter to the community. A look at voter turnout here suggests a similar feeling among parts of our communities.

There is much interest (or perhaps I should say envy) in the UK for our long-term planning regime. I offered several times to speak to councils on how our long-term plan (LTP) process works, but this was never taken up.

Local authorities in the UK would really like to plan in the way we are required to, but they don’t have the level of funding control and autonomy that makes such planning realistic. I was encouraged many times to remind local authorities back home that we should be grateful for the quality planning we can offer to our communities.

2017 and beyond

Setting a solid foundation for 2018-28 long-term plans

Long-term planning will be a big focus for us all in 2017 as we prepare for the LTP round. For our part, we are working hard on revising our audit methodology so we can make the most of everything we have learned over the past four audit rounds.

Expect to see our auditors focusing slightly differently than they did in 2015, with an increased emphasis on the quality of, and explanation for, the assumptions used to build your strategies and forecasts. We will expect that highly uncertain assumptions – and their implications – will be clearly explained to your communities.

We encourage councils to also think carefully this year about what you’ve learnt from previous LTP cycles and bring all these learnings to the 2018 round. We hope to see a real consolidation and improvement in key areas, such as financial and infrastructure strategies, and the presentation of consultation documents.

It is important, when in the midst of the processes and pressures of producing an LTP, not to lose sight of the “why”. Long-term plans are our chance to ensure our communities have essential, effective, and efficient public services into the future. That we’re playing a key role in such an important process is something we should all take some time to reflect on regularly, and with some pride.

Our UK colleagues are envious of the opportunity we have to plan in a way that preserves, develops and maintains our assets for those that come after us. We encourage you this year to prepare to present an LTP that is truly a reflection of your best estimates of what the future will hold. This is what your auditor will be seeking from you.

Use the SOLGM guidance suite, learn from each other, and refer to our past reports on LTPs and long-term council community plans – all have useful points for your next LTP.

Our work programme

Many of you will be familiar with our themed approach to work programme planning. Our 2016/17 theme is information. In the local government area, we are working on an assessment of how local authorities manage and plan infrastructure provision. We expect to complete this case study-based report by mid-2017, and we hope it will provide some useful insights for long-term planning.

The local government team is leading the development of the Office’s 2017/18 work programme theme, which will be water. We’re planning to look at fresh and marine water – including rivers, streams, lakes, groundwater (aquifers), estuaries, wetlands, geothermal and coastal water. We are talking to numerous stakeholders, many in the local government sector, as we develop our draft work programme.

This will then be confirmed in our 2017/18 annual plan, due by the end of June. Please contact us if you have ideas on any projects we should consider.

Finally, our team began blogging regularly in 2016 and you can expect more posts in 2017. We use this blog to share our musings on issues facing the sector. I invite you to read our thoughts and leave a comment. We hope these blogs will draw a response and enrich the work we do together in 2017 and beyond.

This article was first published in Local Government Perspectives 2017.

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