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 the wrong reasons: a salary, a lack of alternatives, as a kind of semi-retirement or as a stepping-stone. 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 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 with a child-like understanding of what they are doing.

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3 thoughts on “The democratic deficit

  1. The local government situation in Auckland, in particular, is a tough one. Huge numbers of people speak English as a second language, so it is understandable that Council would make some effort to ensure documents / publications were understandable and accessible for people with limited English language skills. An even larger number wouldn’t understand how a Council works and what its pieces are and how they interoperate…or how to engage with them. Much of this is laziness and incuriosity on the part of the public. It’s almost as though you need two versions of most documents. One is the simple overview in plain language – like a executive summary. The other would be the meat and potatoes detail to support the summary. People would be able to enter at the level their own skills can support….and delve deeper

    Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do if incompetent people are elected. Especially those who don’t know they are incompetent and can’t be persuaded that there are some things they don’t know but perhaps should. Whatever goes wrong can’t be their fault as they didn’t know anything about it anyway….and so one.

    I agree we need competent people elected and they need the information they require to do their jobs. But that comes back to voters being competent and….sad to say….the trend there is in the wrong direction and has been more or less since television became the norm in every home. The correlation between the two can’t be coincidental.

  2. I guess the trick is that you want the government to be ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’. But is it really ‘of the people’ (by which I mean a reflection of the city) if it’s a group of well educated technocrats – isn’t that why councils have CEO’s and staff?
    I do agree though on the need for more training. I was kind of relieved when I heard about John Key sending Paula Bennett on that training thing in the US a while back. The more support and training we can give to decision makers the better. She is a prime example, one of the most powerful ministers yet she really doesn’t strike me as the smartest tool in the shed.
    Also – where is that stat on Councillors per head of population from? At 5000 it must be based on all levels of government down to the local board level and even then it seems low for Auckland. The Auckland Council members each represent over 50,000 people – a similar number to electorate MP’s.

  3. The CEO and staff are the technocrats and have dominated since the 1989 reforms gave the CEO too much power.

    – NZ is already at one extreme with relatively few councillors by the international comparisons.
    – Statistics are from Wilson & Game (2006) Local government in the UK.
    – Richard is right that the statistics compare councillors to citizens, not including board members.
    – A ratio similar to electorate MPs is too high for local representation of local community issues, unless effective local boards are in place.

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