Local Government Magazine
Elizabeth HughesLG MagazineLocal Democracy

The public knowledge gap

By Elizabeth Hughes.
There are millions of ‘how to’ clips on YouTube covering everything from how to tie your shoelaces to how to make a bomb.

No-one with access to a computer and broadband need ever have an excuse for not being able to bake a cake, learn a new language, clip their dog’s toenails, or clean the shower.

However, I have found a gap in the market.

There are no clips on ‘how to do local government’ – let alone how to do it well. There are not even clips on what is local government, or how to be an elected member/councillor in NZ?

The closest one can find is a YouTube clip on What does council do? on Hamilton City Council’s site (1860 views), How local boards work – Auckland Council (332 views), and LGNZ’s candidate’s preparation series 2019 (six views!).

I did find an attempt at ‘youf’ communication called What does local government do? (LG-Info-Sheet-for-Youth), but that just served to emphasise how poorly local government information is represented in the education or knowledge space.

Interestingly, what I did find plenty of were YouTube clips on: being an MP and how parliament works and how to be a board member or director in a private or not-for-profit enterprise. And, while there are plenty of overseas examples of what local government is and how it works, these are not just irrelevant in the local context, they are also patronising, mono-cultural and sleep-inducing.

There is just nothing out there that is aimed at building the capability of New Zealand citizens when it comes to local government. An entire generation – maybe two – have no idea what local government is, or does, let alone what ‘doing it well’ looks like.

We’d be lucky if five percent of citizens would be able to get eight out of 10 questions right in a pub quiz about what local government does, what it means and how it operates. Possibly not even about their own local council.

Does this matter?

Well, I believe it does if you want to have more people elected to be councillors/mayors who are competent to do the job. And that doesn’t necessarily mean people who have degrees or are super-smart. It means people who understand what the role entails, the scope of their responsibilities and who have the capability to do local government well.

And perhaps even more importantly, it matters so individuals are motivated to vote and participate in local democracy.

Recently, I have observed a community that has had its council removed and commissioners put in their place. Having signed off on a hugely significant LTP – they were good – really good at seeing the big picture, focusing on the future (as well as the present), dealing with complex issues, listening and responding to the community and stakeholders, communicating clearly and in one voice, being objective and being decisive.

Showing leadership around the delivery of efficient, effective (and difficult) decisions is a beautiful thing.

But is it the measure of doing local government well? (That’s a column for another day…)

Civics education alone will not change the dial on whether local government is done well, or not.  But, it will be a great start enabling progressively more young people to confidently vote and participate in democratic processes – and therefore improve the likelihood of local government doing better.

This will be a giant step forward, but will also take some time before the effects are felt.

Doing local government well, like anything, requires a balance between knowledge, skill and practice. The situation in New Zealand is that very few people are sufficiently capable to do this. Not because they aren’t experienced or caring or well-intentioned – but because the breadth of capability within the wider population is so limited and under-cooked.

Currently it’s a case of the overwhelmed trying to lead the underwhelmed.

It’s about this time every three years that councils, Elections NZ, LGNZ and DIA will start to discuss how to get more people involved in the election next year.   But this is not the only place or time where the investment needs to go.

We are entering a period of significant local government reform.   A shake-up of the sector is a positive and exciting opportunity for the dial to be shifted on a whole range of things.   Investing in greater commitment to local government awareness and education is urgently needed.

Having an informed and engaged citizenry will be integral to whether the reforms succeed or not.   Maybe we could start by being challenging, entertaining, educative and engaging and ask the question – what does ‘doing local government well’ look like to you?



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