Local Government Magazine
Local Government 101

The perfect match? LOL

By Elizabeth Hughes –Elizabeth Hughes Communication.

Imagine going on a date with local government.

Local government dating profile: His* photo is slightly out of focus (he’s new to selfies). Clearly visible in the background is a pile of clothes he tried on and discarded before finally deciding that the polo shirt would send the right signals. His actual job, while steady, is of a type (lawyer/accountant/engineer) that’s always been the butt of endless jokes. Although he joins in the laughter, he never really gets why they’re funny. His hobbies are reading, cryptic crosswords, amateur dramatics and Sims. His profile proudly displays the prizes he won at high school for toastmasters and badges awarded from the scouts/territorials. He likes watching TV – Fair Go and Border Patrol – and participating on talkback. He would take you to the movies (Groundhog Day or the Truman Show), out for dinner (perhaps a taste of ethnic to impress) or for a long purposeful walk along the beach (but is not comfortable holding hands). He is local government. And, sadly, he is on home detention. *Presumptive pronoun.

To be fair, most council election novices would be imagining more of a long-term committed relationship than your average dating app hook-up. And, through their eyes, the potential partner they are hopeful about would look much more enticing than the one described above.

For new candidates, the desire to establish a new and different kind of relationship with their council must be seriously compelling. The investment of time, money and dignity is significant. 

Local government (the sector) and councils have become increasingly complicated and tiresome. It seems everything they do is either exhausting, excruciating or extraneous. Dancing on the heads of pins is not their default setting.

The freedom to influence, ‘fix things’ and/or make an impact as a newly-elected councillor is seriously constrained. This is because of decisions that are already made, compromises that are needed or legislative decree (or proposed changes to legislative decrees). And it’s repetitive, tedious and slow. 

The frustration and/or disillusionment experienced by many a rookie councillor, and even some recidivists, must be extraordinary. 

He likes watching TV – Fair Go and Border Patrol – and participating on talkback. 

Based on my own experience (10 election cycles and numerous induction courses) the most common issues, consistently reported to me by first-term councillors, are:

• They did not feel welcome (names of staff, finding the toilets, explaining the jargon, knowing when and how to ask their ‘dumb’ questions);

• Far too much being talked at and not enough time allowed to chew over ideas.

A number of councils run generic pre-election courses for prospective candidates. However, these tend to focus on transactional details, rather than encouraging thoughtful consideration of traits that will make the relationship a strong and successful one. 

Maybe pre-election courses could be expanded to include questions that allow candidates to explore their own relationship traits such as:

• What are you standing for as opposed to standing against?

• Are you able to openly and reflectively consider the views of citizens and communities beyond your own ‘tribe’?

• Are you a fast-twitch action person or a steady-as-she-goes process person?

• What are your non-negotiables? What will you do when you can’t achieve them?

• How do you deal with conflict?

• How will you measure your success?

Suggestions for prospective candidates to test their own commitment and resolve could be:

• Read (not skim) all council/committee agendas from the previous 12 months – while sitting in the library. This gives them (a) a visual perspective of the amount of reading required (b) a real-life experience of a council facility (c) an insight into their local government partner.

• Know the rohe, iwi and hapu of their turangawaewae.

• Explain in their own words, the purpose of local government: “to enable democratic decision-making and action by, and on behalf of, communities”.

• Google all the Acts of Parliament that control local government delivery, services and activities (there are 21 of them).

• Attend a tree planting, go to the skatepark, catch a bus, use a public toilet.

• Watch six back-to-back episodes of “Neighbours at War” in one sitting.

As with all prospective relationships, it’s probably best to do a reality check before you swipe right. 


This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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