Local Government Magazine
Elizabeth Hughes

Step up the volume

Step up the volume - Featured Image - Local Government August 2017

It’s time to sing the local government chorus, says Elizabeth Hughes.

As I write this, both major political parties are embroiled in excruciating public relations debacles and for a brief time the own goals of local government are off the front pages of newspapers around the country.
However, it’s likely the yacht races and international rugby will be diversion enough for these events to quietly disappear with little more damage than the cynicism-ometer registering a little bit higher for a few days. As they say: in politics, timing is everything.
But these political events do highlight some very important communication principles.
When an action is misguided, the best thing to do is to admit it, apologise and never repeat it. Local government has many times been a victim of its own bullishness when it comes to trying to cover up mistakes. Worse, it has tried to wriggle out of responsibility for mistakes once they’re uncovered.
Blame-sharing never plays out well as a sound bite. This is especially important for those times councils have used the ‘legislative requirement’ out-clause to explain why something happened the way it did. Individuals or decision-makers have to own the misdemeanour or mistake.
Fix whatever was wrong, fast. Then say so.
Say it all at once and keep saying it. There’s no shame in buying time by wanting to get the facts straight. This is very different to creating a story that fits acceptably with only some of the facts. But once you have the facts, and the story, just keep repeating it. When the story is based on truth, it’s very easy to be consistent.
One bad thing can wipe out 100 good things. Local government delivers competently and superbly for the most part. When you do stuff it up, the community you serve engages with the narrative – usually supplied by local media – and adds these events to the space in their brain reserved for ‘meets already low expectations’. Make sure all the good things you do build a bold foundation so the bad things can be more easily forgiven.
Set the agenda. Be clear, stand tall and be vocal. Sing from your own song-sheet.
And on this last point: where are the “say it loud, say it clear” lyrics about what matters for local government? As I said: in politics, timing is everything.
In less than two months New Zealanders will be electing a fresh mix of political leaders for the country. And, currently, the voice of local government is silent, or at best ‘off-key’, on what their agenda is – unless charging for plastic bags is actually the main priority for the sector.
It’s not as if there isn’t a song-sheet. LGNZ’s manifesto and SOLGM’s research provide some key themes. It would be great now to hear some clarity, direction, passion, leadership and consistency from everyone in the choir.
When it comes to brand local government, the image is still that of the younger sibling to the big sibling of central government. You are often viewed as an annoying, wasteful and messy kill-joy. (Harsh but true.) This perception is reinforced each time local government doesn’t step up to its rightful place, cringingly allows its bigger sibling off the hook, allows itself to be smacked down and doesn’t make its voice heard.
It’s time to get that chorus humming in tune and step up the volume a bit.
Compare generic brand “council” to generic brand “hospital”. Both are full of highly-trained specialist staff, governed by politicians, systemically complex, bound by all sorts of legislative processes and deliver a broad range of services.
Everybody knows what hospitals stand for and want. And importantly, political parties and voters know what the health sector needs and wants.
Now is the time for local government to forcefully sing a very loud anthem about what it really, really wants.

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

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