We use this term deliberately to include not just local government, but all of the other interests which together contribute to community decision-making about future direction and how to get there.
This is a change from the conventional way of thinking about government or governance at a community level. It recognises the important and usually central role of local government itself, and also that there are many other influences that need to come together as part of the process of governing communities.
At the heart of this is a growing understanding of how decisions which affect the future of communities are made and implemented. Many come out of the voluntary and community sector, or out of major local service providers in areas such as health and education. Others are strongly influenced by the business community. There is a greater emphasis on collaboration in areas such as service delivery to reduce costs and improve efficiency.
Traditionally these different sectors and influences have operated in relative isolation from each other. That is now changing because of the growing awareness of the contributions each sector makes to the community's well-being, and the importance of working collaboratively rather than in isolation. It underlies, for example, the emerging Total Place Initiative in England with its emphasis on bringing together at the local level the different agencies which contribute to community well-being.
It's not just the public sector. One of the most interesting examples of effective community governance we have been close to is the community banking network associated with the Bendigo Bank. This began as an interesting approach to delivering banking services through a franchise model, with ownership of individual branches vested in the community (from the bank's perspective, this was a creative way of sharing the risk that an individual branch might not be viable). That network has now evolved into a genuine community resource with a strong capability in community priority setting based partly on the fact that a share of profits from individual branches is distributed back into the community each year.
It is also driven by a massive shift over the past 25 years from community engagement as the opportunity to vote for council members, to community engagement as genuine participation in the decisions which affect individual communities.
This is one area where formal structure and legislation have, for the moment, fallen behind. New Zealand's local government legislation (and that in a number of other Westminster style jurisdictions) is largely based on the traditional belief that voting is the critical means for community engagement. Recent years have seen increased provision for consultation (now being clawed back in New Zealand) but of a kind which is largely seen as ineffective.
A new way of governing communities
A lot of our current work has focused on how councils can respond creatively to a very different political and community environment. The need for a new way of governing communities - a new form of relationship between councils and the communities they serve - is at the heart of our work in areas such as local government structure and function, the use of arms-length entities (see the sections on Council controlled organisations (CCOs) and trusts in our website) and the use of local government's funding powers (as an example, for ageing in place).
Our most recent project in this area, Future Options for Northland Local Government, is a good illustration of how we apply new thinking, both within New Zealand and internationally, to the practical question of what local government arrangements will best meet future needs. Although the specifics will differ from region to region, and country to country, we believe that the basic principles have very wide application and represent the kind of direction in which local government will increasingly move.