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.


Make our local bodies powerful

The unique value of local government is that it is the only elected, representative local body. Every other group represents one interest over another. Local body politics is often lampooned and can throw up some irregular folk. Councillors are not representative of young people, nor of ethnic communities. There is cronyism. A feeling pervades that some Councillors are not up to the job. Lavish mistakes happen like the Hamilton Supercar fiasco. But imperfect though it is, our council is the best we’ve got.

Local government is more responsive, accountable and accessible to the communities it serves than the Beehive and government agencies. Weak local government means weak democracy. New Zealand has one of the most centralised forms of government in the developed world. Most civil servants are employed by the central state services, rather than their local council. Councils can be reduced to the oversight of central regulations and arcane rituals. Low rates, less red tape, more development is the war cry of the haters. As if leaky homes were the result of anything other than de-regulation. The result of Cabinet arrogance overturning local wisdom.

New Zealand local government has struggled to accommodate population growth and urban intensification. Long-term debt has risen. Infrastructure lagged. Developers were not forced to make Development Contributions for the added costs of their developments until forced to by councils fighting them in the courts. Rates must pay to maintain rural roads, for public transport and for healthy communities. The 2007 Shand enquiry into rates did not uncover evidence of widespread fiscal incompetence. Our rates are not high by international standards. The costs would be lower if we lived in more compact dwellings.

If anything Mayors have too little power compared to the expectations placed upon them. The Mayor has one vote, the same as any other Councillor. They Chair formal Council meetings and have the influence of their office. Elected politicians have little control over over-paid Chief Executives who appoint and control all the staff and resources. A stronger Mayor with their own office and staff helps the council speak with one voice to central government. Len Brown disappoints many Aucklanders who nonetheless appeal to the authority of his position. Few argue that we don’t need a Mayor to tackle the direction of travel from Ministers.

It is arbitrary to draw legislative lines between the environmental, the economic, the social and the cultural. Local bodies have a broad role enshrined in the Local Government Act 2002. To remove their special power of general competence is to stop Councils from responding holistically to issues of local concern. Crime is a social issue. So too is recreation and how we use our public space. Rodney Hide drew the line at libraries. Len Brown at free swimming in South Auckland. Let the Mayor, Councillors and local voters decide the direction of their communities. Listen government ministers! Do not impose more restrictions upon our ability to organise ourselves locally outside of your control.