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Which way is the pendulum swinging?

Written by Peter McKinlay on September 21st, 2012.      0 comments

This week I have been at the International Congress of the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

It was a startling contrast with the work I have been doing in New Zealand contributing to public debate on the government's proposed local government reforms - which are largely designed to pull local government back to its 'core' activities and restrict it from straying too far into promoting social, cultural, economic and environmental well-being.

Among the distinguished international speakers (in this case by video link) was Prof Ed Glaeser from Harvard celebrating the extraordinary success of cities as mankind's most significant invention, essentially showcasing local government's triumphs.

At the Congress I had the privilege of chairing a presentation by John Walsh of PwC on Australia's proposed National Disability Insurance Scheme which came out of a Productivity Commission report into disability care and support. It is to be a national scheme with common standards and conditions of entitlement across Australia, and national level governance. Crucially, however, services themselves are to be determined and delivered locally with an expectation that community-based organisations and other local networks will be the principal service providers. It is a clear endorsement of the importance of the ‘local’ in facilitating the effective delivery of services to meet nationally determined needs.

Which way is the pendulum swinging? In New Zealand's direction of restricting local government (and, by inference, community initiative); towards Ed Glaeser's vision of cities as mankind's greatest achievement (and thus a celebration of the success of local government); or towards Australia's acknowledgement of the crucial role of community-level determination and delivery of services to meet specified needs?

The weight of evidence, and current experience (as an example, the English emphasis on open public services which is again a clear statement of the pivotal role of community based decision-making) suggests a stronger role for communities and their governance, including local government. The pendulum is definitely swinging, but its direction is towards greater local autonomy and a stronger, not weaker role for local government and local governance.

We are what we think we are

Written by Peter McKinlay on July 24th, 2012.      0 comments

In countries such as England, Australia and New Zealand, there seems to be something almost irresistible about the temptation for higher tiers of government to keep changing not just the rules of the game, but the players as well.

It could be read just as bureaucrats and ministers wanting to tinker with whatever is in their portfolios.  Or perhaps it’s something more fundamental at work?

Perhaps the real issue is not so much higher tiers of government, as how people in local government themselves think about their place in the universe.

What really started me thinking is an issues paper which the Greater Wellington Council has just published as part of a review of options for the future of local government in the Wellington region (http://www.wellingtonreviewpanel.org.nz/DownloadFile/Review-Panel-Website/Resources/Wellington-Region-Local-Government-Review-Panel---Issues-Paper).

In considering the constitutional place of local government (the review group is chaired by a constitutional lawyer and former Prime Minister) the issues paper concludes:

But it is incontestable as matters now stand that in constitutional terms local government in New Zealand depends upon the policies and expectations of central government.

It's part of a wider belief, in much of local government, that councils are "creatures of statute" and thus subject to the whim of the governments which enact the statutes. I've always found this slightly puzzling. The major corporations which dominate our private sectors are also "creatures of statute" in the sense that they owe their existence to legislation. We don't however read of the captains of industry saying that they depend upon the policies and expectations of central government - indeed, to many observers reflecting on the global financial crisis, it's almost the other way round.

Is the real problem that people in local government, including elected members, think of themselves as part of a subsidiary form of public sector body, rather than as the community's leaders. Why, when governments set out to reform local government on the usual and often populist grounds of inefficiency, poor performance, etc, isn't there a strong up welling of resistance?

Maybe what we are really witnessing is not so much the dependent constitutional position of local government, as the result of a lack of strong public support for the role of local government, because local government doesn’t see itself as the communities’ leaders.

But if this is the case, then rather than worrying about the constitutional position of local government, should we really start focusing on how to reconnect local government with its communities so that they in turn genuinely value it as a mainstay of local democracy – one they are prepared to defend?

What's my city?

Written by Peter McKinlay on May 4th, 2012.      0 comments

On 3 May, ten of England's largest cities outside London voted on whether they should have an elected mayor with substantial, but as yet undefined, executive powers.

For England it is a reflection of a growing acceptance that the Centre by itself cannot achieve the outcomes it seeks either for the economy, or in broader social and quality of life terms. It's part of the current coalition government's emphasis on greater devolution.

It is also a fascinating shift in thinking about how we govern our societies, with very real implications for other jurisdictions such as most Australian states and New Zealand which are currently reviewing their local government arrangements - how should we think about the role of cities, and indeed what cities actually are?

Sir Michael Lyons gave real impetus to this rethinking with the emphasis on ‘place shaping’ in his 2006 report on English local government. Central to this was his stress on functional rather than legal/jurisdictional boundaries.

It's at the heart of the current English debate. Yesterday’s referenda are for cities with their currently constituted boundaries. Many in England now argue that the real issue is not city mayors, but city-region mayors much like the Mayor of Greater London - see recent output from the Centre for Cities as one representative voice among many making this argument.

There are signs the government may agree. Its City Deals initiative Unlocking Growth in Cities which offers cities significant devolved funding, is more focused on the functional than jurisdictional boundaries, emphasising that " To unlock their growth potential, local leaders in the core cities will need to work effectively across their economic footprint".

The same document strongly suggests that cities will find it much easier to qualify if they have opted for the elected mayor option - and indeed the first City Deal has been done with Liverpool which moved early to an elected mayor.

What should all this mean for the debate in those Australian states, and New Zealand, where the future structure of local government is again on the table? In New Zealand, the debate is dominated by an "Auckland too” flavour. A common theme is that other regions of New Zealand (groups of territorial local authorities within the boundaries of a single regional council - a body with primarily environmental management responsibilities) should follow the Auckland precedent of forming a single council for the entire region, covering both regional and territorial functions.

But is this consistent with modern thinking about cities, functional boundaries and economic footprints? New Zealand's capital city region, Wellington, is in the early stages of the debate over whether its regional council and eight territorials should form a single unitary council. Wellington's economic footprint extends well beyond the formal regional boundary. It's at the southern end of the North Island; it's not too hard to make a case that councils at the northern end of the South Island are within Wellington's economic footprint.

The situation is potentially more dramatic in major Australian states. Sydney's economic footprint unquestionably runs from at least Newcastle in the north to Wollongong in the south. Melbourne's almost certainly encompasses the principal regional centres outside the Melbourne metropolitan region as normally understood - Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo.

In a world in which increasingly cities compete with cities, and competitive advantage depends very much on how well governance arrangements complement economic realities, does it make sense to think about restructuring local government without aligning decision-making with the economic footprint of at least our major centres?

And alongside this, how do we cope with the equally important emphasis now placed on governance at the very local level? A useful insight into how this is starting to evolve is provided in a recently published report from the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government on Evolution in Community Governance: Building on What Works which highlights the growing extent to which people want to be directly involved in decisions which affect the place where they live.


Who decides?

Written by Peter McKinlay on April 15th, 2012.      0 comments

The new UK Localism Act suggests that the UK Government may have accepted, finally, that local communities can take local decisions without the world coming to an end (but the acceptance may be conditional - there is still a great deal of opportunity for ministerial intervention).

The New Zealand Government has decided that it's time to get local government concentrating on core services. The current purpose of promoting economic, cultural, social and environmental well-being will be repealed, and instead councils will be required to focus on the provision of “good quality local infrastructure, public services and regulatory functions at the least possible cost to households and business”.

Common to both England and New Zealand - and a number of other Commonwealth jurisdictions - is the idea that somehow central government has both the responsibility, and the tools, to get local government to do exactly what it requires. In New Zealand, local government watchers are scratching their heads over what are local public services, and what does least cost to households and business actually mean? A number are concerned this could become a feast for public lawyers with the risk unclear legislation could encourage resort to judicial review.

Is this really what we want? And do we understand how to make local government properly accountable?

Why don't we try the alternative of accepting that communities differ, preferences differ and people should be allowed to express those. It does mean a bit more care, and it does mean moving from rule-bound consultation (in New Zealand, applying a High Court decision based on how an airport authority should deal with a major airline - not really the same as a council working with its citizens). Instead, shouldn't we mandate a process which requires councils to work with their communities as they develop the initiatives they want to put in place, and find user-friendly ways of helping people understand what they're proposing to do, what it will cost, and how it should be paid for. Think, for example, of participatory budgeting, or community governance as it is starting to develop in a number of different jurisdictions. And let individual councils decide what is best practice for their own communities, and face the electoral consequences if they get it wrong.

One possible positive in the latest round of New Zealand reform proposals is the suggestion that the very detailed compliance requirements surrounding compulsory 10-year plus financial and activity planning should be relaxed somewhat. These provisions were put in place by a previous government which thought that really detailed information compliant with international financial reporting standards was the way to go.

Few were surprised when actual practice suggested compliance was crowding out the strategic leadership role of local government, and most ratepayers could hardly understand the accountability documents themselves.

What's really going on? Are we witnessing some kind of deep concern in higher tiers of government over promoting (allowing?) local democracy - letting people take decisions about what should happen in their own place?

What if the NZ Prime Minister means what he says?

Written by Peter McKinlay on March 20th, 2012.      0 comments

Some of the commentariat seem a bit under-whelmed by NZ Prime Minister John Key’s commitment to 10 specific goals as part of his Better Public Services strategy. New Zealand Politics Daily observed “the five year timeframe for achievement means that current Ministers and departmental CEOs are likely to have moved on before any day of reckoning”, suggesting that this was more political window-dressing than a real shift in policy direction.
But let's have a closer look. It's quite possible the Prime Minister means exactly what he said - and if he does, we may be facing one of the most significant shifts in New Zealand's public sector in decades.
First, he is putting Ministers right up front. In a speech to the Auckland Chamber of Commerce announcing the new initiative, he stated:
“I have appointed Ministers to lead each of these 10 results, along with a public service chief executive who is accountable for demonstrating real progress against his or her result.
“Responsible Ministers are expecting to sign off the initial plans to deliver against these results by the end of this month.”
Next, this is not just something out of the political spin room. Behind the Prime Minister's announcement sits the report of the Better Public Services Advisory Board. This was delivered last November but released only on 15 March, suggesting some long hard ministerial consideration before making the public commitment to pick up on what the board recommended.

The failure to link Ministers fully into responsibility and accountability for major policy has been one of the weaknesses of the New Zealand public management system since the late 1990s, when both Treasury and the Office of the Auditor-General tried to get Ministers to accept responsibility for the outcome statements in the government's estimates of expenditure, and failed.

At the moment, it looks as though the Prime Minister is recognising that unless Ministers are actually on the line, he’s not going to get the changes he wants.

And this is more than just targets to look back on in five years time. Both the BPS and the Prime Minister's speech emphasised regular reporting against targets so that progress towards achieving them can be measured.

And there's more still; the whole emphasis is on reshaping the public sector to get away from the present silos in order to build 'whole of sector' teams to deal with a number of the ‘wicked’ issues which have frustrated successive governments. We are looking at a major shift in the way government operates, at the role of Ministers, and how the public service works with the communities it serves.

We may also be looking at a possible policy conflict. The BPS report itself stresses the importance of working with community, and refers specifically to working with community groups. It does not draw on the extensive international work, especially in the UK, on the role of local government as a crucial intermediary in the effective delivery of social services (whether or not local government itself has any formal responsibility). However there is an encouraging reference to local governance boards, often chaired by the Mayor, as an important component of a current multi-departmental initiative in changing the way social services are delivered in small communities. This suggests the BPS Advisory Board has at least some awareness of the importance of the 'soft infrastructure' local government uniquely provides in being able to join up the dots within its communities.

This may be at odds with the Minister of Local Government who wants to constrain local government to its core activities, and does not believe that councils have a role to play in helping improve performance in areas such as educational underachievement or child abuse – though it does look as though his focus is more one that local government should not be a lead player, rather than a dismissal of its very real potential to act as a bridge between central agencies and communities.

It will be fascinating to see how the Minister of Local Government's views play out, and whether they can encompass the potentially dramatic policy shift signalled by the Prime Minister's speech and the report of the Better Public Services Advisory Board.  Will he see this as representing the real new direction for the role of local government in New Zealand?

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