Local Government Magazine
Elizabeth Hughes

Snarlers at the barbie

Snarlers at the barbie - LG Dec 2016

Do you feel brow-beaten or ignored at summer barbeques when you say you work for the local council? Our regular columnist Elizabeth Hughes has answers for six commonly-held misconceptions about local government.

Elizabeth Hughes
Elizabeth Hughes

How many times in the coming weeks will you be at a barbeque and someone will ask you where you work? When you tell them they either discreetly turn to the salad section or they ask a question. And while the environment you’re in might not lend itself to the heady and properly-constructed response you think you should provide, sometimes the question itself offers an opportunity to correct some common misconceptions.

Warning: the following are six things you might find overly simplistic. But – and this may surprise you – outside of local government circles these things are not clearly understood.

1. The difference between ‘the council’ & ‘the council’

The public do not necessarily understand the difference between these two interchangeable words (and lives are too busy to try that hard).

When someone is asking a question about ‘the council’, you are doing everyone a great favour when you clarify whether it is the elected council or the organisation that is at issue. Most people see ‘the council’ as one amorphous blob. They do not make the distinction between the governance responsibilities of one and the service delivery responsibilities of the other.

So be clear: if it is a ‘decision’ they are questioning you about, it is the elected members who are responsible. If it is a ‘service’, it will be the organisation.

2. Ratepayers versus residents

During the recent election campaign many candidates opined about their commitment to ratepayers – as if this were the only group of citizens they might be elected to represent. It is possible that some of these candidates were elected and they will continue to believe their responsibility is exclusively to a portion of their community.

It is important to help people realise that council (in this case both the elected members and the organisation) is there to serve the entire community – not just ratepayers.

3. Rates

A large proportion of the community (almost all) sincerely believe that their rates are a charge for services received instead of being a tax on the value of their property. This is a very common misunderstanding and often reinforced in those “what you get for your rates” pie charts.

Another question that will follow this is the “why are my rates higher than the rate of inflation?”

If you want to go there, just say that councils don’t shop at the supermarket which is how the CPI is measured. And although useful as an analogy, this will hopefully segue into a much more interesting discussion about the price of bread, sausages, tomato sauce and craft beer.

4. The bogey of debt

Debt has become ‘a very bad thing’ when associated with local government expenditure. A lot of headlines are devoted to reinforcing this myth.

This one is often easiest explained to people by comparing council debt to their own mortgage – a loan spread out over time, enabling large assets to be purchased, that otherwise would be unaffordable if they had to pay cash.

If they show an interest (sorry) and you’re up for it, you might want to try and explain inter-generational equity to them before they’ve jumped in the pool.

5. Engagement versus consultation

This is one that many people in local government confuse so it is easy to see why most barbeque attendees also get it 
mixed up.

Engagement is the process of listening to all views before any obligations are made. Consultation is a formal statutory process that occurs in response to a decision that has been taken (even if that decision is a draft decision).

An easy way to remember this is: engagement is what happens before a marriage. And marriage requires a formal procedure and is a contractual obligation.

6. Councils should be more like business

It’s perfectly okay to agree that the organisation should operate in a business-like manner. But councils are not businesses.

Local government is not driven by profit. Nor is it black and white.

Perhaps the best thing at this point is to start talking about ‘shades of grey’ and move to the pavlova.

This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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