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Local government reform - is government intervention inevitable?

Written by Peter McKinlay on February 27th, 2013.      0 comments

It’s both a dilemma and a frustration for local government in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom that higher tiers of government have virtually untrammelled freedom to intervene, not just in the regulatory sense in terms of what local government does, but to reshape it as they see fit.

Sometimes, as with the Kennett government reforms in Victorian local government in the mid-1990s, dramatic change is imposed with minimal consultation - the government knows what it wants to do and does it.

Sometimes governments do go through quite extensive processes of collaborative working with local government, but then move on to unilateral restructuring if they think they are not getting where they want to be - the 2007 restructuring of local government in Queensland is a good example.

Does it have to be this way? Surely it makes sense for two different tiers of government, both in the business of serving their respective publics, to try and make common cause in how best to do so? This should be all the more the case with the growing evidence that even for those major social services which will always be funded by a higher tier of government, the kind of local knowledge, networks and community input that only local government can generate can have a major impact on the effectiveness and cost of provision.

New Zealand and Australia

Currently there is a heightened interest on both sides of the Tasman in reshaping local government. New Zealand’s government has recently legislated a new reorganisation process which it hopes will make it easier to get council amalgamations approved, but is currently leaving the outcome to due process and the Local Government Commission. The New South Wales state government is in the middle of a major review of the future of local government which includes a commitment to “no forced amalgamations”. There’s a sense that sooner or later the Victorian State government will again review the structure of local government (but with the feeling that later is the operative word given the slim majority that government has, and memories of the backlash against the Kennett government for imposing reform).

Common to both the New Zealand and New South Wales approaches, and to the Queensland government’s initial engagement through the Size, Shape and Sustainability review, is the apparent belief that given sufficient incentive, local government will find ways of reforming itself. But this is this really a sensible expectation?

What can we learn from New South Wales?

The New South Wales review provides a very good case study. Both the Independent Panel on Local Government Reform, and the Destination 2036 process out of which it came, have placed a strong emphasis on encouraging councils to develop their own solutions. However, the Panel has also gone to considerable lengths to make it clear that change is inevitable, simply because of the changed environment in which local government functions, and the challenges it now needs to deal with.

Among other things, it has emphasised the importance of strategic capability - councils with the scale and resilience to deal with the complex issues the sector now faces - and the need to address the very large number of councils responsible for the governance of Sydney (this is partly a matter of number; partly of strategic capability and partly a matter of some reasonable consistency in size and scale).

The New South Wales approach is probably as good an example as one could hope for of an initiative that really recognises the value of local government, and the importance of enabling councils to make their own decisions about their future if it all possible.

What’s the likely local government response? On 19 February the North Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils released a press statement that it would fight mandatory amalgamations, and suggesting that greater collaboration among councils was the way ahead. Another Sydney Council has set aside a $AU50,000 fighting fund for the same purpose.

More generally, there seems to be a sense across New South Wales local government that not too much is wrong with the status quo, and the government should not be considering major change.

It’s early days yet, but there is a worrying sense that New South Wales local government may be in the early stages of the journey Queensland took: of failing to take full advantage of the opportunity to develop its own credible solutions to the very real challenges local government now faces.

Is local government in fact able to embrace major reform?

It does raise the substantive question of whether local government, left to its own devices, really has the capability to embrace major reform. In part this simply may be that the drivers for change are not part of the everyday understandings of the typical elected member or council manager (globalisation, demographic change, the inexorable rise of metropolitan centres). In part, it may simply be the otherwise normally desirable fact that elected members are committed to their communities, as currently defined, and genuinely find it hard to embrace any change which they see as compromising the community’s independence.

On the track record of higher tiers of government, the almost inevitable outcome is forced amalgamation if local government is not prepared to put its own house in order.  Commitments to no forced amalgamations do not last forever; they are more likely to be revised at the next state election.

Do we need a different approach?

We know from experience that forced amalgamation comes at a cost. It’s not just financial, but also personal both for employees and elected members, and the many people in the communities councils serve. The obvious difficulties in achieving change directly raise the question of whether we need a different approach to encouraging voluntary amalgamation. Is it time to question whether this is primarily a matter to debate between local government and higher tiers of government, or whether we need a much broader dialogue, and one which allows the time for communities to make informed judgements?

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?

Why must local councillors be so parochial?

Written by Peter McKinlay on November 23rd, 2011.      0 comments

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.


Its manifesto time again!

Written by Peter McKinlay on March 13th, 2011.      0 comments

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?

From Local Government to Local Governance

Written by Peter McKinlay on January 25th, 2011.      0 comments

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?


New Zealand: A Testbed for Metropolitan Restructuring

Written by Peter McKinlay on December 24th, 2010.      0 comments

New Zealand seems bent on becoming the world's laboratory for metropolitan restructuring, testing the strengths and weaknesses both of government-directed change and of voluntary approaches. I've just been re-reading PricewaterhouseCoopers's governance review for Wellington region councils. It's a must for anyone who wants to get a good idea of why it is so hard to make real change even when it looks as though almost everybody will benefit, and why it must be so tempting for a governement to intervene.

The authors have clearly been walking on eggshells, trying to draw a fine line between highlighting opportunities for change, and not wanting to upset councils which are clearly protective of their local democratic role.

It's a real wake-up call as Wellington reflects on how to respond to the changes in Auckland - the Western world's most recent example of a large scale and comprehensive city restructuring. The authors are clearly aware of the increasingly important role of metropolitan centres both nationally and internationally and make the aspirational case for Wellington to join this increasingly important international network. But that means change. Reading between the lines it's not clear they have convinced their client councils as a group that this is the direction they need to travel.

Why should this be so when the case seems so strong? The answer may lie in the way in which in New Zealand we think about local government as reflected in the following statement from the executive summary: "This … has again highlighted the key tension that exists in local government reform relating to the reconciliation of the community connectiveness of small authorities with the strategic and efficiency opportunities available in larger or special purpose authorities." Readers from other jurisdictions, especially in the English speaking world, will recognise the dilemma.

At least since the reforms of the 1980s, we've done a couple of things which differentiate us from much of the rest of the world. We have treated representation as a cost rather than a benefit, and we have believed that bigger is better. Both of these treat local government as essentially efficient deliverers of services and overlook the equally important role of local democracy (notwithstanding the lovely words of section 10 of the Local Government Act).

This has made it very hard for us to work seriously with the concept, common elsewhere, that different functions of local government require different scales. Delivering a functioning metropolitan region needs local government at a regional level scale. Local democracy needs decision-making at the neighbourhood or community level, and representation which allows most people most of the time personally to know one or more of their immediate representatives. This is not the resident to elected member ratio of 10,000:1 which categorises Auckland's local boards. It's much more the less than 1000:1 ratio typical of much of European local government.

Building a strong metropolitan region in Wellington, able to make its mark internationally, and with real efficiency and scale in service delivery through shared services or other options does not mean abandoning local democracy. It does mean standing back and thinking carefully through how to deliver the best outcomes for Wellington's citizens, and Wellington's businesses. In a nutshell, it probably means strengthening Wellington both regionally and locally so that the region's citizens feel that they are in control of what matters locally, but benefit from the strength of an effective metropolitan region.

There is clearly a debate to be had. Hopefully the councils, their advisors, and the citizens and businesses they represent will do this reflectively and realise that this is not the either/or of choosing between a strong region or strong local democracy but an opportunity to show the rest of New Zealand, and indeed local governmetn in other jurisdictions, how to have the win/win of strength at both levels.

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