by Ian Apperley
It’s a question that I’ve been thinking about for a while now: “What would happen if we dissolved the Wellington City Council as it stands today?” Why? Because the Council is becoming increasingly redundant in relation to modern democracy and life.
Let’s start with what the Council is, which is a very simple construct. Local Government New Zealand tells us that:
“Local government in New Zealand consists of 78 local, regional and unitary councils. The elected members … are chosen every three years by voters in their communities to represent them. The elected members employ a Chief Executive to run the everyday business of the council. The Chief Executive employs all other council managers and staff.”
The Act takes that a little further and says that Councils must enable local decision-making and action by, and on behalf of, communities and must provide good-quality infrastructure, local public services, and regulatory functions in a cost-effective way.
At the heart of democracy is transparency. Transparency in this context means a free flow of information to the residents. That is critical because it forms the basis on which the community makes decisions, which they then feed back to councillors. Without that flow, the outcomes become distorted.
These basic functions are supposed to allow the council to manage the city and its communities, on our behalf. The question is: what does that management system look like?
The Wellington City Council does some things very well and some things very badly. So when I start to consider whether we could do without them, it gets complex. However, I think the WCC is fundamentally broken in several areas. Worse, the council can’t see that it’s failing and so can’t change to be better.
Before we can decide if we need a Council or not, we need to understand how it fails. This will come across to the Council as negative. I won’t apologise for that. It’s up to them to decide if what we think is true or not; it’s up to us to tell them how we think they are performing, or not.
Often the retort from the Council is that we, the community, do not engage and there is apathy. This may be true, however, that apathy stems from the Council. Not us. The community wants to engage and can’t find ways to do it. This reinforces my view that the Council faces irrelevance.
The Council has also lambasted other commentators (and me) over the years for not coming up with solutions. Again, this is incorrect. The community has proffered all kinds of solutions but once they hit the machinery of the Council, they die.
Let’s start with transparency and community engagement. Because they are intrinsically linked. The WCC is not transparent. Nor does it carry out community engagement in a way that works effectively. A quick apology to councillors who have tried to make this work and have been foiled by the council machinery. There are certainly some who have faced down the Council and interest groups to support their communities. They’ve paid a high price personally in some circumstances. That’s another story for another day. New councillors are working hard to change this. But they’re running into that old machinery.
The community believes that the “council does what it wants” and has no interest in their needs and wants. There are many examples of this over the last few years.
The alcohol consultation, the convention centre, the airport extension, the Island Bay cycleway, the Happy Valley campsite, other major projects, the ten-year plan, and so on. The general view is that the Council has a pre-set agenda and the consultations are either skewed or ignored, with the belief that “we know best.”
That attitude, “we know best” is another problem. It appears everywhere. The reality is that the Council doesn’t know best. We do. We are a city of nearly three hundred thousand, and we have engineers, academics, professionals, blue collar workers, bus drivers, transport experts, artists, entrepreneurs, politicians, educators, scientists, highly-skilled immigrants, and other useful people.
That “council knows best” attitude is holding the city back. That attitude feeds into transparency failing, because why would the council bother consulting with us when it has all the answers? It harks to a very kiwi cultural flaw which is: when we work inside an organisation we don’t look outward and connect. We are institutionalised instantly.
The Council is extremely institutionalised. The Council, instinctually, seeks to dominate the discussion about what it is doing – I suspect through a defensive stance which looks something like this:
When I believe that I am right and the community is not only wrong but apathetic, then rather than trying to reach out and stimulate democratic debate, I take a defensive stance. I engage a PR machine to oversell what I want to do, I fire up pretty websites to “consult”, I put the councillors in a box and remind them they are not allowed to talk to media (and if they do I lock them out of the building, I use the “commercial sensitivity” excuse, I don’t answer OIA requests, in short, I seek to dominate the debate rather than being open.
We’ve seen that again and again over the last decade, and it likely explains why there are so many PR people employed by the council.
Such attitudes thwart the democratic process, which needs a free flow of information that enables communities to participate.
It’s my job, as part of the Fourth Estate, to raise these issues. It is always heartening that readers comment on these articles because it tells me that the community still cares about making the Council effective. Which, incidentally, is why I write. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t spend a great deal of my time analysing.
I’m very interested in what you think. Tell me what you think works, what doesn’t, and how we can help the Council break out of its thinking.