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Failing to get engaged

by Ian Apperley
When the Wellington City Councillor who is responsible for Community Planning and Engagement is calling her own Council out on a lack of transparency, then we know that there must be issues around how the WCC is engaging with its employers, us, the residents, and it’s simply not good enough.

Diane Calvert’s comments were reported from Wednesday’s council meeting which voted to approve another Willis Bond building on the waterfront.

Frankly, I wonder why we bother engaging with the Council at all. Time and again a lack of public information undermines the engagement process. After a year of the new-look Council, nothing much appears to have changed.

The problems with consultation are nothing new and can be broadly defined as lack of information, lack of status quo options, lack of ability to introduce alternate ideas and a perception that it makes little difference what feedback is received with the Council choosing what they want to do regardless.

How many times in the last year have we seen closed Council meetings where the public have been excluded? How many times has the Ombudsman told the Council off for not meeting their legal requirements under the release of information? Why are these deals being done behind closed doors and not out in the public eye?

The heart of any democratic process is making information available that can help the public respond effectively to consultation. When that information is hidden, the process is made defunct. We’ve seen it with engagements over the year including in the cycling space, Shelly Bay, and now the proposed office building to be built on the wharf at Kumutoto.

Another common issue, highlighted in the various cycling engagements that have finished or are underway, is no option to retain the status quo. Surely a valid option is to keep things as they are and surely isn’t it the Council’s job to convince us of the benefit of change?

Finally, asking the public for their ideas seems to be a big no. We have seen community-led initiatives that have bettered the city. Why can’t the city ask us for ideas on what we want? Why aren’t schools being engaged?

These issues lead to disengaged residents, which in turn leads to low voter turnout, and begs the question why we need the Council to do anything other than maintaining basic services.

What is most frustrating is that it doesn’t need to be this way. Modern research shows that cities can engage with residents and the results can be exceptional:

“The present bureaucratic structures many nations have in place must become more flexible. As the size of cities increases demographically and geographically, the old ways of ‘doing’ government will fail to proportionately respond to pressing complex needs.”

In other words, unless change is unleashed on the process, then we will see an inevitable downward spiral that will result in more of this bad behaviour and poor outcomes.

In Smart Cities – A Roadmap for Development, Sam Musa argues that “smart cities” are a change from old, rigid bureaucratic structures, controlled by dinosaurs from the 20th century (my words) and methods of managing cities that entrench inefficiencies and disconnection between infrastructure and citizens:

“The third element in developing a smart city roadmap is engaging the citizens through the use of e-government and effective governance, which leads to the increase of efficiency and enhancing delivery of services. One goal of engaging the citizens is to build trust and make them part of the solution.”

So why is the WCC getting it wrong?

One theory is that the WCC continues to have a neoliberal agenda. That agenda is necessarily secretive and focusses on things rather than people. It is also a throwback from the baby boomer years where you were told what to do in a command and control style with no room for discussion or debate.

That neoliberal theory can be seen through the Council’s operation and strategy. A focus on money as a bottom line, as opposed to “softer” outcomes, causes the resident to be seen as a money source, a number, rather than a human with varying needs, skills, and ideas.

Put simply, the process of public engagement is a threat to the neoliberal view of the world. That view starts at the top. Here’s a quote from a 2015 interview with WCC CEO Kevin Lavery:

To Kevin’s way of thinking, most people don’t have much contact with councils. “For the vast majority of the public, their experience of council is going to the library, getting their dustbin emptied… it’s not about attending a local board, or even a council, meeting. Really, the issue with local boards is not to do with engaging the public. It is about trying to get some buy-in from people who are involved in politics and that’s a very small minority of people.”

To change public engagement, a city must move from a closed state to one of openness. In most progressive cities, that is carried out by making data “open.” That is, releasing the data that a Council holds on our behalf (we own it) to the residents.

“The dynamics of smart city revolve around the technologically enhanced ability to transform our environment and social practices to produce public value. A particular aspect of urban life that creates a precondition for such smartness is public access to government information and the ability to reuse and redistribute it, usually referred to as open data.” Source

Open access to city held data supercharges the engagement process. However, until that cultural change occurs, this Council is doomed to repeat the failures of its current and previous engagements. And let’s be very clear, this is a cultural change, not a system change and it will reduce cost while increasing quality of services and life for residents.

Until that mindset alters, the relationship between residents and the Council can only continue to become worse, with misconceptions eroding trust on both sides.

7 comments:

  1. Chris Horne, 3. November 2017, 19:48

    Councillor Diane Calvert highlights problems with Wellington City Council’s decision-making. processes. I believe an example was councillors’ support for a community group’s proposal to build two kilometres of tracks in Polhill Reserve, a part of Wellington Town Belt. This reserve protects regenerating native forest. It has an adequate network of tracks. It provides habitat for rare native birds, e.g., tieke/saddleback, toutouwai/North Island robin, kakariki and hihi/stitchbird. These birds have migrated into Polhill Reserve from contiguous Zealandia/Karori Sanctuary. Council’s own environmental impact assessment cited the natural values in the reserve, and the inevitable impacts that clearance of native vegetation, disturbance of the soil cover, and disruption of the rare birds which the buillding of more tracks would cause. The officers’ report ” … advised that a precautionary approach is taken.” Councillors voted to ignore that advice, approved the proposal, and tried to sweeten walkers and runners by constructing a track solely for their use.

     
  2. CC, 3. November 2017, 20:38

    A very timely contribution Ian -well considered as usual. The problem appears to be that CEOs and Council administrations throughout the country believe they have licence to make deals in secret with self-appointed power players, and circle the wagons as soon as words like ‘transparency’ or ‘accountability’ are mentioned. The upshot is that the governance role of the elected Councillors is usurped. Their current role as ordained by CEOs seems to be to rubber stamp the deals of senior administrators and to act as a bulwark between themselves and pesky ratepayers. In trying to find some meaningful occupation, one faction of Wellington City Councillors has taken on the role of presenting the sales pitches of the 1%ers (e.g. Cr Foster and Mayor Lester leading the charge for Willis Bond and the Shelly Bay consortium on what appear to be deals that need a healthy dose of sunlight) while others act as go-betweens to sort out the irritants that irk residents which are not actioned by the multitudinous layers of staff. Somewhere in between are a group of Councillors who seem dazed and confused who end up towing the party line instead being guided by research, consultation, integrity, purpose and conviction. The astounding irony is that Mayor Lester was prepared to do the right thing by not renewing the contract of the CEO, but couldn’t take his Council colleagues with him. It looks like we now have two more years of secretive decisions and uncritical endorsements.

     
  3. Andrew, 4. November 2017, 0:13

    Chris didn’t mention the huge public response in favour of the new trail development in Polhill reserve. The area not only is a habitat to native birds but is also heavily used for recreation and commuting due to its proximity to the city and suburbs. The main reason this trail was requested was to reduce user conflict due to user volumes. This is a unique situation and the WCC have acknowledged this by stating this is the last trail development in the area.

     
  4. TrevorH, 4. November 2017, 8:56

    The Wellington City Council runs like a mini Soviet republic with secrecy and unaccountability. It refuses to take account of concerns around projects that impact directly on livelihoods and safety. This Council seems to be more impervious to reason than its predecessor which is saying a lot. I really don’t know what the solution to Wellington’s appalling governance is if people don’t make an effort to participate in greater numbers to resist and overturn decisions they don’t like.

     
  5. johnny overton, 4. November 2017, 12:47

    Very timely article. It’s simple folks; public consultation is simply a tool in the council’s public relations tool box. Also, the former neo-liberal mayor brought one of her ilk over from the motherland & installed him as CEO of the WCC. He is the power behind the throne & the councilors are there to rubber stamp his neo-liberal, business as usual agenda. Until he is replaced & the neo-liberal ideologues within the WCC are reprogrammed, I’m afraid we’ll just have to live with this more of this nonsense.

     
  6. Ian Apperley, 5. November 2017, 11:55

    Excellent comments, thank you. I agree there is a disconnect between the Council proper and the Councillors. Well, and other groups as well to be fair. I also found it interesting the CEO was renewed.

     
  7. Michael Gibson, 6. November 2017, 14:21

    I have just received Sally Dossor’s letter spelling out exactly why the vote (due the next day) should not be in favour of the requested deal on Shelly Bay. Thanks to O.I. procedures!
    It seems to spell out accurately and articulately the very serious problems which surrounded the Council’s approach to doing a deal on the property,
    I wish to say that, in my opinion, anyone who voted in the majority was in dereliction of their duty as an elected member – unless they had considered proper advice to counter what such a senior ex-Council officer and legal adviser had written to them about on the eve of their voting.
    Again in my opinion, the Mayor, his deputy (our new MP), and the culpable councillors should personally pay the costs of all legal action and other sorting-out which must necessarily arise. Any views please?

     

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