Wellington Scoop

Deconstructing the city council

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.


  1. Ben, 29. March 2017, 11:41

    Ian, Great article and I agree with you.
    I believe that the problem is within the council itself with council officers and staff who cling tightly to their jobs and power bases. I know of several councillors who have tried to battle against decisions with little success, and they eventually get worn down by the process. The councillors also seem to get bogged down in so much information they have little time or chance to get through it all and assess it.
    I doubt we would ever get rid of the council but we would benefit from streamlining the staff, starting with the marketing and PR people. All they seem to do is produce glossy promotional material to sell the council message, with very few real facts.
    Given the amount of real expertise in various areas out in the public domain, why doesn’t council form a permanent “public forum group” where experts/professionals register their interest and expertise. Members of this group could be called upon to help councillors assess proposals that are in their area of expertise before decisions are made and before money is spent promoting the decision and sending it out for consultation.

  2. TrevorH, 29. March 2017, 13:35

    The Council’s lack of transparency is deeply concerning. Subsidies to an international airline and professional sports teams are masked by “commercial sensitivity”. So is the odd-ball purchase of a pine plantation in Tawa. No transparency goes hand in hand with no accountability which is unacceptable in a democracy. It could lead to corruption, and local government is by no means immune to this as we have seen from recent prosecutions in Auckland.

    Apart from devising regulations to persecute pet owners and dreaming up cycle lanes that disrupt communities, it is hard to see what this Council achieves other than a bloated PR bill. They would not be missed yet their cost to ratepayers continues to escalate beyond the rate of inflation. Thanks for starting this discussion.

  3. Diane Calvert, 29. March 2017, 15:00

    Thanks Ian and Ben. As the Councillor with the Portfolio for Community Engagement, I thought I should respond about how the Council engages and what it intends to do about it. I have experienced both sides, being on the receiving end as part of my community and now as part of the Council, working on improving engagement.
    Will we see some improvement this year? Yes we will. It may not go as far as citizens would like, but it’s a step in the right direction and a catalyst (I hope) for more significant change. So what’s going to be different? You will see us coming out into the community more, starting with the Annual Plan engagement and engaging within forums rather than just through public submissions. You will start to see other ways for engaging rather than just ‘pretty’ websites so that we can reach a broader group of people much earlier on. We also need to enable different communities to share their views with each other on the same topic. The Council should not always act as ‘judge, jury and executioner’. Work will start soon on developing up a Karori community plan. This will be a partnership with the community right from the start. Transparency will be a key element. We will be reviewing our advisory groups to ensure we have the right mix and are using the expertise within our communities. Ben’s suggested a ‘public forum’ group, that could be an option.
    There is a lot more we can do and will do, even with limited resources. I am also very aware that ‘proof is in the pudding’ and positively themed rhetoric by itself will not sway Wellington.Scoop readers’ opinions of the Council.

  4. Marion Leader, 29. March 2017, 17:04

    I would be interested to hear Cr Calvert’s reaction to some of the specifics which have been raised in this worthwhile discussion. Could she start by commenting on the number of PR people & give us their total cost. What we are having at the moment are trite and stupid loads of guff about reducing the increase in rates from 5% to 3%. I’ll be blowed if the Mayor trotted out this rubbish without getting it written and disseminated with expensive “assistance.”

  5. KB, 29. March 2017, 17:04

    Thanks for replying Diane. One question in relation to this sentence in your comment “Will we see some improvement this year? Yes we will. It may not go as far as citizens would like, but it’s a step in the right direction and a catalyst (I hope) for more significant change”.
    Why won’t it go as far as citizens would like? Why only a single step in the right direction? What’s the reasoning for not embracing significant change?

  6. Michael C Barnett, 29. March 2017, 17:28

    Ian. I’ll give you an example of what you are on about. In 2000, shortly after I had left the Council after 10 years as Roading Design Manager, where I had been responsible for designing implementing many of the street improvement schemes in the CBD and suburbs, the then Mayor and CEO came to Miramar to inform the community of a ten-year programme of street improvements in suburban areas in which Miramar featured, but was well down the list.

    With my knowledge of these schemes and the working of Council I set about mobilising local community interest in the submissions process to Council about to be debated. Together with a small group of enthusiasts, we produced a plan and a proposal for upgrading the main shopping centre in Park Road and were successful in persuading 330 groups and individuals including our own to make a submission to Council. As things turned out this represented one third of the total submissions covering the entire ten year plan for that year and the end result was the Council listened and Miramar was bumped up to the top of the list for street improvements.

    That was the end of our success for things started to unravel. First the local residents association – apparently miffed that we were encroaching on its patch – started belittling our efforts. Worse, when we got involved in working on the detail of a plan (keeping in mind we had local knowledge and were a volunteer group), the Council Urban Design team took over, squeezed us out, and produced its own plan of how things should be.

    There is a lot more to this story that could be told, but I will leave it there except to say the the leader of the Council team is now a senior manager of the Transport Agency, an agency which one could argue is equally redundant in relation to modern democracy and life in general.

  7. Ben, 29. March 2017, 18:23

    Diane, thank you for your response. It is very heartening to hear that things are going to change but, as KB mentions, why not go for significant change, as consultation over the past few years has not been very successful.

    I would also be interested in knowing how many marketing and PR staff are employed by the council, and what that costs us. I suggest it would be more cost effective and popular with the public if transparent facts and figures were available, perhaps via the website, in place of the glossy patronising marketing material. Having to ask for copies of documents to get real facts and figures via official Information requests is frustrating and often obstructed by council. Little wonder the council finds itself vilified by the public at times.

    I accept that we have many hard working councillors but, when they fail in their responsibility to prevent ill conceived proposals put forward by council officers and staff, sadly for the councillors they are the ones who lose their jobs. Maybe it is time council officers and staff had to become more accountable as well?

  8. Heather, 30. March 2017, 9:43

    I think Ian’s article is wrong. The idea in a democracy is to elect representatives to lead – they already represent their cpmmunity because communities voted for them! I for one am sick of being consulted to death – I want the Council to act, to get on with it. If you don’t like what the Council does vote them out. Or, run for Council yourself if you think you can do a better job. But your opinion will be just one of 14 Councillors around the table – the question is how many with agree with you? Then you will get a real taste of democracy.

  9. laidbackchap, 30. March 2017, 11:22

    But at least this year we bought a Forest.
    The biggest problem the council has is lack of Engagement. Followed closely by skewed consultation to support all the wonderful ideas that cost money money money. Have a look at the annual plan & 10 year plan very craftily written so if you fill out one of their forms or websites you can not oppose anything as it is always written with closed questions. Eg Do you support blah?, Is it a good idea blah?.

  10. Heather, 30. March 2017, 12:02

    In response to Michael Barnett’s comment – there is no such word as “roading”. The word is roads or road network. Only in NZ does “roading” seem to exist.
    Secondly, you say you were responsible for road improvements in the city in the 10 years before you retired in 2000. Why didn’t you plan and implement safe cycling infrastructure when you were at the Council – the rest of the world’s cities started 30 years ago.

  11. Heather, 30. March 2017, 12:08

    This notion that the Council should spend valuable time and resources asking permission of everyone in the community is ridiculous – no wonder councils are slow in delivering if this is what we want them to do!

  12. laidbackchap, 30. March 2017, 12:12

    I actually think we need a body to run these events and manage the city. I don’t think we need City Councillors. As generally if you have a problem you contact the council not the Councillors.

  13. Troy H, 30. March 2017, 12:16

    @Heather: regarding ” the democracy dogma” as we can see in the WCC there is no “rule by the people.” The WCC just states its long term plan and then it promotes its agenda and ideas.

  14. Diane Calvert, 30. March 2017, 12:31

    In terms of resources, what I understand is that Council has recently re-prioritised its resources to support less of a communications (telling) focus to more engagement (listening, involving & participatory approach). This will take time to bed in.
    The Mayor’s office does have a small staff and some of their responsibilities are in communications/PR. If you would like me to request specific information, please email me diane.calvert@wcc.govt.nz

    Significant change is being embraced by the council leadership team and elected members. This is as much a culture as a process change. So yes there will be a step change but it will take time. My comment was made in respect of this year only while we start to bed in the new approach. I want to ensure the improvements in community engagement are sustainable and become part of our Council’s DNA. There is a lot of good work happening already and for key projects, the results won’t be obvious for 6-12 months. However last night at a Thorndon Quay cycleway improvement workshop, I saw some real positive change in the Council’s approach to engagement and community participation.

    You mentioned accountability and I agree. As elected members, we have a governance and monitoring role. We need good performance measures in place to assist with this. I believe this has been weak in the past but we are now reviewing these measures as part of this year’s Annual Plan process. As a new member of Council and with a background of organisational improvement, this is a priority area for me. I am currently focusing on driving change in this area in addition to my portfolio of Community Planning and Engagement.

  15. Anabel, 30. March 2017, 16:08

    Good leaders listen and follow the will of the people, they are wise and always do what is best for the people. They are not economic hit-men with their own agendas and plans.

  16. Ian Apperley, 30. March 2017, 16:29

    Thanks again everyone for some thoughtful comments. You raise some interesting ideas and counter-points.

    HI Ben, I think the behaviour you see is endemic of the machine. The question is how to change that and I suspect the answer is starting at the top. Culture is pushed down by senior management. I love your idea of a “public forum group” that could be utilised by the Council. It makes sense and would be a good way for Council staff to open their minds to new ideas.

    Hi Diane, thanks for responding. I like that idea of engaging through forums; my advice, and hope, would be that there is an online facility for people to do that as well as a public meeting schedule. A lot of us are online and it is far easier for us to engage through that kind of medium. It is good that there is change coming in your portfolio and yes, it won’t happen overnight, but that’s ok.

    Hey Marion, in relation to the number of PR people I understand it to be in the region of 22 staff. To be fair, those are numbers that go back a year or so now. I don’t know what the average cost is. Given the Council also uses external communications companies for specific pieces of work, it is likely high.

    Michael, your story is common. There are a lot of examples of this happening over the last decade or more. One of the things that the community must do is also be transparent. Often when community groups clash there is a conflict of interest. The consultation around the cycleways in Island Bay showed this as well.

    Thanks for your comments Heather. I want to challenge you on some things that you have said.

    Democracy is participatory. It is not something that we just do every three years and it shouldn’t be. That’s because the world changes. So; issues that were there at election time are not there afterward and things like the earthquake, as an example, change the priorities. That means that there needs to be active consultation always. I’ve considered running for Council in the past and I thought long and hard about that. In the end I felt that I was more effective outside Council looking in. Do I think I could do a better job as a Councillor? No. I don’t.

    Being “consulted to death” is a symptom of the system, it doesn’t mean that consultation can’t be effective, it means that in Wellington it is NOT effective. Many cities do this well, which means we can.

    Thanks again everyone.

  17. checkpoint charlie, 30. March 2017, 18:29

    I remember when I met Mayor Celia over a community issue and I briefly spoke to her about some viewpoints and concerns floating around. She invited me to her office for a 30-45 minute chat because she said she was interested in learning more about the issue, especially around engagement. I arrived and was told by her she only had 12 – 15 minutes. She then used all this time to talk about her view and why she was right. When I tried to interject to say “have you considered this” I was shot down and talked over. In fact I literally said less than a sentence. Then I was told thanks for coming and shown the door. That was a light bulb moment for me in regards to how WCC leaders do/value engagement. And I was a staff member when this happened.

  18. Mike, 3. April 2017, 1:25

    Though there should be an emergency services plan for the possibility of natural disasters, focusing on spending billions on “strengthening “glass buildings and other buildings that are up to code, work that will not alter the outcome in an big earthquake is just foolishness.
    Democracy is not participatory if the appointed people do not follow or allow this “rule by the people” .