The day I write this piece the New Zealand Herald is running a front page story on Auckland Council’s “big IT blowout: a new computer system set to cost up to $100 million more than budget and be a year late”
Just days before, the paper had been highlighting huge pending rates rises for some ratepayers and, adding insult to injury, the inability of many Aucklanders to find out online what their rates rises may be as the council website kept crashing. Yet many well-respected and well-informed people can both see and demonstrate the huge positive progress being made right across the local government sector. LGNZ president Lawrence Yule, in his column on page 44 of this issue, for example, summarises progress this year on improving governance and performance, reputation and lobbying impact. As he puts it, in all his years in local government, he has never seen the sector so proactive and focused on improvements. Without delving into the specifics of these particular examples, they’re yet another indication of the huge divergence between media and public perceptions of local authorities and how the sector sees itself.
I spent a few days at SOLGM’s annual summit in Dunedin recently and its risky business theme amply highlights the conundrum facing the local government sector.
Keynote speaker Barry Quirk, chief executive of the London Borough of Lewisham, has faced more than his fair share of cuts under the UK government’s severe public austerity programme. Barry’s take is that, unlike many private sector organisations, local authorities provide functional aspects of their offering (such as access to clean water, decent roads and rubbish collection) but they cannot, or do not, emphasise the emotional or social aspects (such as how they can help people feel better about themselves or make them look good in front of their peers). What this means is local authorities are like old-fashioned Nokia phones which pretty much perform all the necessary functions but lack the social cachet of an iPhone. And until we sort that one out, we’re likely to linger somewhere in a jacket pocket, hidden and under-valued.