Wellington Scoop

Stasis, governance, and management

by Ian Apperley
In my last article, I wrote about the Wellington City Council facing stasis after 120 days of being in office. The question is why? There are unintended consequences to a lack of ability to create change, and we are starting to see those.

Coming in as a new councillor, you think you can immediately reach your fingers into the machinery of local government and make a change. The only thing that approach is going to give you is fewer fingers.

Often new councillors have no education into the difference between “management” and “governance.” They often mistake the two, leading to a resistant Council that must deal with councillors coming down out of governance into the internal management machinery.

Sources tell me this is happening with the new City Council and that staff are not surprised, though frustrated that it is happening. The Council must govern and leave the machinery of doing it to the organisation proper, whiich is equipped to operationalise decisions (you hope.)

But even governance is not working well in my opinion. Governance requires principles and generally, in New Zealand public service, these are categorised as Purpose, Accountability, Leadership, Professionalism, Trust, Transparency, and Risk Management.

Let’s have a look at each.

Purpose is about making decisions that are relevant and being decisive. While some on the Council display those qualities, many don’t, allowing themselves to be caught short through lack of research before meetings and bringing their own bias, as opposed to realising they are elected by the people, for the people, in order to enable progress.

Accountability is key and links to leadership. Currently, anytime anything goes wrong or looks too hard, councillors scatter and cannot be found. In the case of the sewage saga, we’d expect the Council to be accountable and be seen to be so, although it is an outsourced service. However, councillors have been happy to run a mile from the issue.

Leadership could make all the difference. Communicating about activity and sparking a public debate on issues would make sense. But we don’t see the councillors or the mayor all that often, unless they are taking selfies somewhere.

We expect our councillors not only to behave professionally but also to have some practical experience at life and professions. While we can vote in whomever we wish, assigning people to portfolios where they will be able to use their professional skills on is critical. The portfolios as assigned, in my opinion, often don’t do that.

Trust. I don’t need to comment on this do I? Trust and confidence are at the heart of local government, all government, and the Council suffers from a lack of it. It’s an area that requires urgent work.

Transparency. Again, sadly lacking. The Council is seen as a closed shop that is not nearly transparent enough. In other cities, much progress has been made by tackling this area and releasing data, information, reports, and emails proactively, rather than waiting for an OIA, which is often treated as hostile.

Transparency is also about reporting on success and failure against each councillor’s accountability. It’s important, because if a councillor is failing in a portfolio area, consistently, then things need to be changed otherwise stasis occurs and then eventual collapse.

Risk Management tends to focus more on public relations than actual risk, in my opinion. There are significant risks that need to be managed, and again, these aren’t transparent.

For those of you who know the Council, you can quickly see that governance is not operating optimally and that means that the entire machine is not operating well. Hence, stasis, and worse, potential blind spots.

Unfortunately, another area that is causing some stasis is the creation of what I would call “centralist” portfolios. That is portfolios that tend to favour the central city as opposed to the wards. Even city-wide portfolios tend to lean in that direction and therefore ward councillors can forget they are representing a ward and neglect it.

We can see that in as much as Councillors rarely comment on issues within their wards and therefore become disconnected from their communities. They fall silent on local issues where they were once advocates.

As I have said before, I firmly believe that being a councillor is not only a full-time job; it’s also a full-time job with extremely long hours. Those councillors who choose to hold down another job or otheer work commitments are almost always less effective than those who commit full-time. This assertion comes from a decade of analysing the performance of councillors across a range of measures, including that particular one.

All of this leads us to the fact that the Council is not performing that well. And with a lack of experienced councillors in some portfolio areas, generally, the problem is compounded.

Like it or not, the majority of councillors vote on their own bias and party lines where affiliated (declared or not), rather than taking into account the wishes of their residents and the expert advice they are given by Officers. This throws any hope of progress out the window unless it is an issue that is a no-brainer.

We could always say that the basics are getting done, rubbish being picked up, sewage being treated, but we are now entering an era when even some of the basic services are starting to look at risk.

Within a poor-performing governance system, we can be assured that major issues will not get fixed, they’ll get worse, and at some point, a crisis stage will be reached where radical change is implemented.

Better to implement radical change now, while there is still wiggle room to get it right.


  1. michael, 15. February 2020, 9:23

    Absolutely agree Ian. The council has been underperforming for years and it seems the current lot are going to be no different, hiding away and perhaps overwhelmed by the task of getting the basics right. Unfortunately, the only ones who are going to suffer after years of mismanagement are the ratepayers.

    I also find it incredible that councillors are not expected to work full-time; for those who don’t, are they still paid the same as those who have made being a councillor a full-time job? Where else in the market would this be allowed to occur?

  2. TrevorH, 15. February 2020, 9:27

    The new Council needs a crash course on the fundamental importance of water management systems. It’s clean drinking water and reliable sewerage that make cities possible, not convention centres. Early civilizations like the Minoans more than 3000 years ago knew this. I recall visiting Knossos and being blown away by the sophistication of their piped water systems. I read in the DomPost today that the Council spends a third of its budget on water infrastructure. Well, it needs to increase the effectiveness of its spend and perhaps the overall budget share, as the sewerage system appears unable to cope and in danger of collapse. Time to set new priorities for Wellington’s long-term sustainability.

  3. Concerned Wellingtonian, 15. February 2020, 9:32

    First-class!! Except that 22-year-olds could not possibly be expected to communicate with their constituents when they have been paid a mere $25,000 since the last Council meeting in the middle of December and they can get away with doing nothing.

  4. steve doole, 15. February 2020, 10:30

    “Expert advice they are given by Officers” may have been a valid concept 40 years ago. Since then most councils I have worked in seem to have lost expert people, semi-deliberately becoming mediocre at many things. Some experts have gone to private service companies, and contracted back to councils, called ‘outsourcing’, but most expertise has been lost from public service. Even bus drivers are degraded. GWRC is an example of very patchy expertise. Councillors will be lucky if they find experts amongst officers, excepting those who are expert at giving advice.

  5. Concerned Wellingtonian, 15. February 2020, 12:27

    Officers are actually very good at giving “independent” advice at the behest of the most influential politicians. The kow-towers usually avoid thinking about the proposal in question and vote purely on the grounds that they are following officers’ advice.

  6. Aroha, 15. February 2020, 13:10

    Great points Ian, I hope some of the people stagnating away in the Council will read this article.
    I think they are all in denial. And when confronted with actual problems, tend to spend all their energy and time doing PR and blaming scapegoats.

  7. Dr Jennie Condie, 15. February 2020, 15:54

    Always interesting to read your blogs Ian and reflect on what I could be doing better. I have been very quiet since the election campaign. I’m focused on learning how to do my new job well. Trying to keep all my fingers while working out how to get things done!

  8. Fleur Fitzsimons, 15. February 2020, 18:25

    Dr Jenny Condie – you are making a huge contribution! I really respect your insights, dedication and judgement. Haven’t noticed you being “quiet” at all. [via twitter]

  9. michael, 16. February 2020, 9:05

    Fleur, it maybe that councillors have not been quiet at the council but publically, while Wellington sinks under sewerage, transport woes, and boarded up popular facilities etc, the silence from councillors is deafening.

  10. Tony Jansen, 16. February 2020, 16:26

    Fleur you have reinforced the consensus that some of our councillors are underworked, under-performing and unfit for the role. Your dismissal of any chance to investigate the option of congestion charging was the worst sort of party politicking. And the reported reason for doing this, that it unfairly effected those on low incomes, seems illogical, especially when supporting an increase in parking charges is not seen as equally punitive.
    The city needs to investigate a range of measures to tackle congestion. We need councillors who are prepared to make some brave decisions.

  11. far5cam, 19. February 2020, 10:08

    Tony, I think there is another problem in all of this, which relates to what other roles and employment councillors hold. Their declared business interests are shown here.
    If you look at these, it is difficult to see how some councillors have time to undertake their role.