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Is the show over before we see the programme?

by Marcus Anselm
It’s autumn, the season for local government long-term planning and consultation. The intensely prepared, heavily workshopped consultation documents are let loose on an eager public. But do the councils really care what we think?

Local government expert Elizabeth Hughes thinks not.

In a recent article in the Local Government Magazine, Hughes says the show’s over long before we get the programme.

“Most recommendations are already completely bound up by planning and funding decisions that have previously been made or steering toward a pathway that is Hobson’s choice,” Hughes wrote. “Therefore it is incredibly difficult for them to fully listen to and act upon, the wishes of people in their communities.

“Appealing to ordinary people to make submissions that might shift the inevitable course of action as outlined in the consultation document is inviting both disappointment and disenchantment from even the most dedicated local government junkie.”

She says this is not just in long-term plan season, either.

“The same can be said for any draft proposal, plan or project the council puts out for consultation.

“By the time it has reached that point, it is usually too late to have much meaningful influence at all.”

Hughes said most constituents are not aware that the right time to be influencing happens many months, and sometimes years, before the documents are inked. “And most councils are not geared [no matter how well-intentioned they are] to operate in this way.”

Hughes points the finger at the straightjacket of legislation. She says the Local Government Act imposes “the need to go through a hugely prescriptive LTP consultation process”. The LGA has “placed false expectations in the wider community that this is the place to contribute to democratic decision-making”.

“When in fact this process does the complete opposite and stifles it.”

The “incredible amount of work” required for the “triennial conversation with the community” produces documents that say; “the legislation says we have to give you choices so we came up with our best recommendation plus an option that we know is never going to fly”.

“Oh, and we’d like lots of submissions to show we tried hard to get feedback and are prepared to listen – even though mostly we already know what we are going to do”.

And Hughes should know. She has spent a career in local government communications, serving in Hamilton and Tauranga city council, the Waikato region, and the Local Government NZ national body before striking out on her own as a strategy specialist.

So the value in reading your council’s consultation documents may be to find out what is going to happen anyway, rather than attempting to persuade the council to your way of thinking.

This is an edited version of an article that was written for Local Democracy Reporting.

Consultation runs from 6 April to 10 May for the Wellington City Council’s Long Term Plan, with a proposed 2021/22 rates increase of 13.53%, and an average rates increase of 5.77% over 10 years.

Consultation is now open for Porirua’s Long Term Plan, with a proposed rates increase of 8%.

Consultation is also open in Upper Hutt, which has a Long Term Plan proposing investment in a “vibrant city centre.”

For the Kapiti Coast, Long Term Plan consultation runs from 7 April to 10 May, with an average rates increase that’s proposed to be 7.8 per cent.

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9 comments:

  1. Concerned Wellingtonian, 25. March 2021, 11:34

    I woukld like to hear comments from Wellington City Councillors about this. Do they leave everything to unelected officers?

     
  2. Wendy, 25. March 2021, 12:25

    Absolutely agree with Marcus. The only way we are ever going to have any form of transparent and genuine consultation is by co-design. That means WCC engaging and collaborating with the community as to what is needed, and then fully involving the community at the start of projects, not at the end when project frameworks and critical decisions have been made and cannot be altered.

     
  3. Claire, 25. March 2021, 13:11

    Wendy: Do the Residents’ Associations get some prior knowledge of what is intended at an early stage?

     
  4. Ray Chung, 25. March 2021, 16:06

    Hi Claire et al, sadly, I agree with this article! I believe councillors have already made up their minds before going to “consultation.” I’ve made so many submissions to be ignored that I’m convinced of this. Claire, we at the Onslow Residents Community Association (ORCA) don’t receive advance notice of any plans and we often read them in the press first!

     
  5. TrevorH, 25. March 2021, 16:27

    So what is the point of local government? It’s cumbersome, lacks necessary expertise at all levels, it’s extremely costly and now we know it’s also undemocratic. Now’s the time to do away with it, just as the provinces were abolished well over a century ago. A country of five million people is equivalent to a New York borough. New Zealand has 78 regional and unitary councils, that’s crazy. All local government functions should be taken over by central government, supported by a new Ministry of Works.

     
  6. Wendy, 25. March 2021, 17:06

    Claire: My understanding is that decisions to start projects, or make major changes, are normally determined inhouse by WCC where initial planning, recommendations, and funding are established long before the public are made aware of any consultation. Resident Associations may know of upcoming projects but as far as I am aware are not actively involved from the start. The public can ‘give feedback on council proposals’ by accessing the WCC website to see what future engagements are coming up. However, this is not co-design.

    As Hughes explains in the article mentioned above: “Shifting the dial and enabling much greater ability for people to be participants in influencing outcomes would require a transformation in the way that local government works. This would mean much more commitment to the business of listening rather than telling, and much more funding devoted to empowerment of citizens than reliance on formal bureaucratic systems. This is unimaginable under the current paradigm”.

     
  7. Wood, 25. March 2021, 17:51

    While the LTP process is highly visible and outlines where the money goes, there’s so many other parts which fly under the radar but are more impactful in regards to long term decision making. Revenue and financing policies, asset management policies etc… they set the bounds of the LTP and although may be consulted on from time to time, they are always wrapped in such technical and impenetrable language that their true relevance is simply not understood.

     
  8. Jim Candiliotis, 7. April 2021, 12:15

    “how many changes were made to the draft annual plan, to arrive at the annual plan, as a direct result of a consultation process?”
    This question was asked a number of years back, twice. Each time the answer was “none”. Third year the answer was ” it’s too hard to work out”.

     
  9. Concerned Wellingtonian, 7. April 2021, 17:11

    How will WCC deal with the $400m for housing missing from its plans? Aren’t we meant to be building more houses?

     

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