The democratic deficit

A departing Auckland Council senior manager wrote an e-mail to staff suggesting, “All writing, whether in reports, letters or memos needs to be in plain English. You need to target a reading age of around 13.” This is wrong.

It’s good if the aim of the reports is to make the council more accessible to all. As Councillor Cathy Casey puts it, “Nothing wrong with brevity and plain English. Long winded local government-speak littered with acronyms is the bane of my life!”

Yet who actually reads these reports? Not many 13 year olds. Few people attend to the details other than those directly involved in the business at hand.  Council reports go to the governance body of a complex, multi-million dollar organisation. Would you expect a large company or Cabinet government to dumb-down its strategic decisions to a pre NCEA level? Should we leave the complex bits out and Keep It Simple Stupid?

If the reports are inadequate, councillors can either accept the recommendations of unelected officers or delay the decision by requesting more information. Neither is a good outcome.

New Zealand councillors have little governance training. A recent study showed only a third got any at all. Some look like they are there for questionable reasons: a salary, a lack of alternatives, as a kind of semi-retirement or as a stepping-stone to Parliament. The role may be a bit too comfortable. Between elections there is minimal contact with electors and a low public profile is acceptable.

Our councillors represent around 5,000 citizens each compared with 201 citizens per councillor in Austria through to just over 3,000 in the UK. This makes them less able to be accessible to and representative of their electors. It suggests a need for community or local boards to ensure that community feedback is part of the decision-making process.

What we need is highly competent individuals capable of analysing complex material to make good decisions that reflect the needs of the communities they represent. Not overly simplistic reports rubber-stamped by remote councillors.