In this section of our website, we give you our views on local, regional, national and international government and governance. We welcome your comments.
Much of our recent work has had quite a strong focus on community engagement - how do local authorities work with their communities and what should they be seeking to achieve? It's clear there's a great deal of activity, with many councils seeing community engagement as an important part of the way they work, but equally still casting around for what community engagement actually means, and what practices will best achieve the outcomes they want.
There is also a huge range of different approaches on offer, and a real growth industry in workshops on how to do community engagement. What we get from feedback is that there is much less certainty about just where all that is going, and how community engagement translates from a great deal of effort by councils and their staff into real and enduring outcomes in terms of the practice of council/community relationships.
We've been thinking about why this might be the case and have a couple of thoughts we want to put out for debate. First and foremost it seems to us that the focus in the developing practice of community engagement has been very much on how councils build their capability in managing individual issues where there is going to be a community interest in what the council does. The result it seems to us is an imbalance: councils, especially their specialist staff working in community engagement, are developing some very real capability. The question to ask is whether this has been balanced by an increased capability both amongst elected members, and more importantly perhaps within their communities.
We want to suggest that the next step in developing the practice of community engagement is to shift from a focus on capability within the council to capability within the council's communities. In a sense, councils should see themselves as building social capital within their communities.
Doing this almost certainly requires a significant shift in how councils think about community engagement. It's a shift from a capability to handle matters issue by issue, to building a resource base across the community. It's almost certainly more than just a matter of how councils engage: building capability in the community amounts to building some form of institutional capacity whether formal or informal. It's likely to be moved from engagement per se to community governance, enabling a network of institutional capability within the community capable of sharing with the council in determining what outcomes should be, both issue by issue and more generally.
It's a long way from the origins of interest in community engagement, but it's hard to see how the practice of community engagement can move on from its present emphasis on building council capability to building community capability as well, without crossing the boundary into community governance.
It's a question which is coming more and more to the fore as metropolitan governance comes over the horizon, with its emphasis on the balance between regionwide and district level decision-making.
There are a couple of things which we "know" about metropolitan regions. First, getting their governance and performance "right" is going to be crucial for the economic and social well-being not just of the regions themselves but of entire national economies. Next, this means being able to make and implement decisions on major regionwide initiatives (Infrastructure, land-use planning etc) which will impact differentially. Some parts of the region will welcome these decisions and others will be opposed because of what they see as the impact on their local communities.
This brings into focus the role of the local councillor elected to advance the interests of his or her community which may often be seen as being in conflict with the regional interest. This was the theme of a number of submitters to the Royal Commission on the Governance of Auckland the report of which records “territorial authorities were also criticised by a number of submitters for parochialism and inability to work together in the interests of the region.”
The Commission itself, in considering possible governance structures, commented “Fresh blood and fresh ideas will be required to move on from the region’s history of parochialism." and went on to recommend a governance structure which completely removed the territorial level of local government within the Auckland region.
It is an issue which is going to come up every time governance arrangements in metropolitan regions come under scrutiny. It's very easy to take the default position that local councillors are indeed parochial in the sense of being narrow-minded, self-interested and unable to recognise the wider regional interest. It's also usually wrong, and completely misses the point of why people put themselves forward for local government. Normally it's because they are passionate about their area and they want to put something back into it including protecting what they most value about it.
Surely this is exactly what we want from people in local government - a passionate commitment to doing the best they can for the people and the area which they represent?
So let's describe this in a way which recognises what is actually going on; I prefer the term "local patriotism". And this is not just about the niceties of language, or being kind to local councillors. It's very much about asking the right question when it comes to designing governance at a regional level.
If you think what you're dealing with is parochialism and narrow mindedness, then your policy solutions lie in greater regulation, restriction, and possibly restructuring to remove structures you see as parochial. The results, if you rely on regulation and restriction, are likely to include significantly greater transaction costs and more drawnout decision-making. If you choose restructuring instead then you face a different issue; the risk of simply replicating in the new structure the problems you thought you were removing by abolishing the old. Toronto and Ottawa provide examples of what can happen when a number of councils are amalgamated into a metropolitan level council. Both have had real problems of dysfunctionality as the ward-based structures put in place simply replicated around a larger council table the parochial battles which had previously been fought out between different councils (It remains to be seen whether the same problem will also plague the new Auckland Council which is also ward-based).
And which ever route you go, you also risk undermining local energy, local commitment and local democracy by abolishing the structures through which those had been expressed.
Treat the issue as one of "local patriotism", and the challenge becomes how to preserve the best of local patriotism, including local energy and commitment, while still enabling necessary decisions to be taken at a regional level. The solution lies in the design of structures, making sure that local issues continue to be handled locally, whilst insulating regionwide decision-making against the risk of local interests prevailing. That it can be done is evidenced by the obvious success of the restructuring of Metropolitan London.
Understanding that you are dealing with "local patriotism" and not parochialism is going to be crucial in getting the right structures in place within our burgeoning metropolitan centres.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
In the past few weeks I've been working on how community governance is evolving in Australia, listening to officials in England discuss the challenges of devolution under the Localism Bill and reflecting on the progress of the Auckland (super city) Council one year after its establishment.
Humpty Dumpty would be in his element. In each of those three very different situations the major focus is on "improving accountability and transparency" - but what actually do we mean?
Auckland underwent a massive restructuring including placing much of service delivery in seven council controlled organisations. The objective naturally was to improve accountability. Officials in England are concerned about how to maintain accountability in a decentralised environment. Changes in community governance in Australia are all about making councils more accountable to their communities.
Let's think about accountability for a moment without thinking about specific context. Webster’s unabridged dictionary defines it as "The state of being accountable; liability to be called on to render an account; the obligation to bear the consequences for failure to perform as expected; accountableness".
Here we have two separate components: liability to render an account; and bearing the consequences of a failure to perform.
What a general definition cannot do is tell us accountability to whom for what, and this is where the challenge really starts in looking at accountability in local government.
In England, interest in accountability in the context of devolution is how to ensure local government remains accountable to Ministers and Parliament for the expenditure of public money, when the power to spend that money is devolved. Think of the dilemma. If it's direct accountability in the sense of reporting to Ministers that you have done what they required, you may have accountability but you won't have devolution. If it's reporting to Ministers that expenditure followed due process, and for purposes generally consistent with the policy devolved to local government, you may have devolution but you won't have what Ministers may mean by accountability – which is that “we want to hold you to account for doing what we want you to do despite devolution”.
In Australia, the emergence of community governance is about individual communities being able to influence decisions which have an impact on them. It's a new way of thinking about the relationship between communities and local government. What it is actually saying is that conventional accountability is inadequate; it's not an effective way to give individual communities a sense that their specific concerns have been properly taken into account through a process they regard as legitimate. This requires much more than council-wide strategic and operational plans, and reports against those plans. These are both too general, and lack the second element of accountability: bearing the consequences of failure to perform. We've long known that the local government electoral process is simply not designed to provide feedback on the multitude of individual decisions councils take during their electoral term on behalf of the different communities for which they are responsible.
We also know from New Zealand experience that typically local government reports prepared in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles seldom convey the kind of information people genuinely want to know about council plans and council performance. It may satisfy prudential requirements, but it doesn't get the gist of the outcomes councils deliver.
In Auckland the use of council controlled organisations looks like a good compromise for ensuring a measure of democratic influence whilst placing activities which have a number of commercial characteristics in an appropriate structure (typically a company). Certainly the degree of disclosure, and the requirement to prepare amongst other things local engagement plans, goes further than would be required of the same activity in a council business unit. Again, however, there are questions about the second leg of accountability: bearing the consequences for failure to perform.
Auckland's many communities will be most interested not in the overall performance of (say) Auckland Transport (which is responsible among other things for local and regional roads and public transport), but in how it performs in their own neighbourhoods - perhaps for example in dealing with a traffic calming measure. There is no real leverage apart from political pressure on elected politicians to deal with decisions which the community does not like or where the process was not seen as legitimate.
Consequences, if they result, really come through decisions about appointing or dismissing directors - in other words meta-level consequences. Can this really be an effective mechanism for dealing with hundreds of individual decisions affecting different communities across a population of 1.4 million?
These are three very different examples of practices which are talked about using the common term "accountability". Is it time we started to recognise that, with local government, we actually want multiple accountabilities, to quite different interests, rather than confusing ourselves by speaking as though accountability was a single process?
A lot of MDL's recent work has been looking at community governance and asking the question "who governs?".
There's some fascinating stuff coming out of it. Most councils are now at some stage on the journey of developing their community engagement practices. Virtually all have moved beyond the conventional consultation process (although this is still used especially when legislation requires) to various forms of participatory governance, especially when the issue involved affects only a small part of the community.
It's time consuming and resource intensive but seen as something which councils need to do. But it raises a really intriguing question: on the council side, who is really discharging the governance role?
It's tough enough in New Zealand for councillors to keep on top of everything their councils are involved with even though very often the New Zealand Councillor is full-time. It's much harder in Australia where generally council remuneration is not an income, and councillors need to work for a living as well.
Are we witnessing a gradual shift from elected members, to council management of the task of governing? If councillors are not personally involved in deliberations with communities, and this increasingly handled by council staff, who makes the decision? Even if the decision is formally taken by elected members, it is probably based on a report by a council officer or officers, which is no substitute for having had the face-to-face engagement on which the report was based.
What's the problem here? Maybe we simply haven't caught up with the changing nature of local government, and the need for much more intensive investment in representation. One councillor may easily be able to represent 10,000, 15,000 or 20,000 people if representation role is the conventional one of sitting around the council table, and taking decisions based on the reports which sit before you.
If council decision-making is increasingly based on community engagement processes, which mean that the decision-makers need to be in the room with the community in order to be adequately informed, then maybe we need to change. Perhaps the price of the kind of local democracy we now want is increased representation so that the formal decision-makers and the real decision-makers are one and the same.
New Zealand's next general election is less than nine months away. It's not quite yet the silly season, but very obviously politicians are already working through what options might tempt the electorate.
It's a tough year to be doing it. Even before the Christchurch earthquake there was almost a consensus that the New Zealand tradition of rolling out the goodies had to be put to one side. With the added burden of earthquake recovery, the challenge is now hugely how we do more with less, and how we reduce the cost of the state, both centrally and locally.
And we need to look for an imaginative solutions, rather than more in the way of knee-jerk reactions about profligate local government, inefficient public servants, or overregulation. Too much of our recent experience, especially in local government, illustrates the law of unintended consequences - instead of getting better community engagement, more accountability and lower costs, most government interventions over the past 10 years have produced exactly the opposite outcomes.
Could this be local government's opportunity? On the track record perhaps not. The 1999-2008 Labour led government spoke the language of community engagement and community outcomes but was responsible for the largest quantum leap in compliance burdens on local government in New Zealand's history. Ironically this was done in the name of greater community engagement and accountability but led to increased frustration for ratepayers and residents who really wanted to understand what their councils were doing.
The National led government in office since 2008 has tinkered at the margins of the compliance burden but left it largely unchanged. Instead its focus has been on "efficiency" most notably through a major restructuring of the Auckland metropolitan region.
On their track record, both major parties clearly believe that, in local government, big is better. Auckland provides the ultimate illustration with a council of 20 elected councillors and a Mayor serving a population of approximate the 1.4 million - a representation ratio (councillors to residents) of 70,000:1 in a world in which many jurisdictions start worrying if the ratio exceeds 1000:1. Even Auckland's local boards, intended to be the flagships of local democracy, have a representation ratio of 10,000:1.
Perhaps its time for New Zealand's politicians to have a hard look at what is happening internationally and why. First they would find that representation is generally regarded not as a cost to be minimised, but as an essential element in the key role of local government, the delivery of local democracy. Next, they would find increasing doubts about the effectiveness of the standard model of expert bureaucrats, remote from the communities their government's policies are intended to serve, designing, targeting and delivering social services to improve community outcomes.
The current changes in England are a good example. The coalition government's big society programme
might look like an ideologically driven cost-cutting strategy as many of its opponents claim. At its heart, though, is a research-informed belief in the need to rebalance the relationship between government, local government and community. It's an acceptance that the best decisions are taken closest to the people directly affected, and ideally with them involved in taking those decisions. Among other things, it's prompting some really interesting experiments with employee and/or community owned mutuals as more effective means of enabling service delivery. For a recent example from the English Government's Pathfinder initiatives.
Despite the fact that New Zealand takes a different approach to the delivery of social services (much more through central government than in England, much less through local government) the two countries face similar problems of fiscal constraints, and the need to get better outcomes from services which too often are too remote, or insufficiently connected with the communities they serve.
Is it time for New Zealand to re-engage, and learn from the experience of other jurisdictions?
Shared services in local government have always looked like the idea which never quite made it. There have always been good arguments for doing it, but largely not good enough to overcome resistance, apathy, inertia and the sheer difficulty of shifting from well trodden ways of doing what we have always done.
In 2010, Deloitte
was lamenting that "despite a history of tactical collaboration, shared services have really succeeded at scale". Similar comments are common throughout the research literature on local government.
Most notably, higher tiers of government, in search of the holy Grail of improved local government performance, normally reject arguments for doing so through shared services in favour of amalgamation. That's got the political attraction of looking like firm and positive action, and electoral cycles mean the fallout usually affects a different government. But it also reflects real resistance within local government. Queensland's Local Government Reform Commission was put in place to restructure local government because the state government lost patience with attempts to improve performance through a shared services strategy. One reason the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance decided not to put in place a second tier of substantial councils below a regionwide council was it believed such a tier would not be capable of agreeing on the measures needed to improve performance through a shared services approach.
But it's amazing what a bit of fiscal pressure can do. Most local governments are now facing as tough a financial outlook as ever they have seen. The New Local Government Network's just released publication Shared Necessities: The Next Generation of Shared Services
makes a compelling argument that simply sharing back-office services, even if every council across the country does that to an optimal level, will come nowhere near coping with reduced revenue. The only option is to move to comprehensive shared services across the full range of what councils actually deliver.
Interest is increasing elsewhere. In New Zealand one group of councils has taken an innovative approach to how they think about shared services - for them it is very much a matter of access to and management of information, rather than the former approach of physically shifting things around, outsourcing etc. Key to this is a high-speed fibre optic cable linking all the councils together. This will enable the development of a 'centres of excellence’ approach with each council developing a different specialty, so that there is room for the large and small. Contrary to the usual fears about shared services, this approach should underpin local democracy and the continued relevance of the smaller councils.
Peter McKinlay will be presenting the findings from a case study on this initiative at the forthcoming colloquium of the Research Advisory Group of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum to be held in Cardiff 12-14 March 2011. His paper will shortly be available in the resources section of our website.
From Local Government to Local Governance
In countries such as New Zealand, Australia and England we are used to the idea that we elect local governments which then do things to their communities, quite often for reasons which are hard to relate to any community aspiration or engagement. It's probably one of the reasons that voting turnout at local government elections has been trending downwards for a number of years, and communities are increasingly demanding direct engagement in decision-making on the matters which concern them.
We could be on the verge of very significant change. The English government's localism initiative is being marketed as devolving decision-making to the local level and indeed going further - getting government out of peoples' lives so that they can take their own decisions.
But it's not just government. Some of the most far-reaching thinking is coming out of local government itself. The Lambeth Borough Council has just released the final report of its Co-operative Council Commission, The Co-operative Council: Sharing power: A new settlement between citizens and the state
. The basic theme is putting the resources of the state at the disposal of citizens so that they can take control of the services they receive and the places where they live. More than just volunteering, it is about finding new ways in which citizens can participate in the decisions that affect their lives.
There is an emphasis on moving from councils doing things to
their communities to doing things with
their communities, through initiatives such as shared decision-making, participatory budgeting, co-production and a long-term objective of transferring most decision-making to a mixture of employee and community owned organisations. This is not just some form of hand on heart do-gooder approach; it is a serious and constructive approach to a wealth of research demonstrating that the effective design and delivery of services which impact on the quality of life of local communities is best undertaken in partnership with those local communities.
And this is not the only sign of an increased emphasis on community participation from within local government. We are just commencing a project [we could put in a link here to the what's new bit I am just about to do] with a series of Australian partners looking at different approaches to community governance. It will compare and contrast two different and growing practices: local authority led community planning for individual communities within the local authority district; and the community planning initiative of the Bendigo and Adelaide Bank's community banking network - an exciting development in local governance.
Straws in the wind? Or the first signs that the nature of local government and local governance (and as a consequence also of the way higher tiers of government interact with the societies they govern) is going through fundamental change, and that governance itself may be shifting from essentially top-down to bottom up?