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Who governs?

Written by Peter McKinlay on May 4th, 2011.      0 comments

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.



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