Too many committees?
Former Auckland City Councillor Aaron Bhatnagar complained in the New Zealand Herald today (23 March 2011) about the proliferation of committees in the new Auckland Council. He said that this was slowing down decision-making. This is quite the opposite of what was meant to happen when our eight councils were rolled into one super city. And none of it is necessarily empowering local communities.
Sure, Mr Bhatnagar had a political point to make, blaming the Mayor and his use of the newly boosted mayoral executive powers for the proliferation of committees. But it may just be that a city this large, with many issues and diverse communities, cannot easily carve its way through a morass of complicated decisions that impact differently on different communities and interests. Large cities elsewhere usually have state jurisdictions to share some of the responsibilities, or else very large, semi-autonomous departments (and that creates its own set of problems, which we might address another time).
Auckland did have a way of working before which, apart from disagreement between regional and local politicians about how different areas might develop and some natural rivalry among areas, worked pretty well. After all, the city was seen by the Mercer survey as one of the most liveable in the world and, despite a lagging economy it remains the first port of call for a burgeoning New Zealand migrant community.
But this proliferation of committees is just what I expected from a misdirected view that bigger is better in local governance. What Mr Bhatnagar didn’t mention is the load that committees place on managers and staff in a bureaucracy. So much for carving out middle management. The logic of bureaucracy is that equity and even handedness demand internal checks and balances. Communications among the parts is critical to consistency. Unfortunately, and inevitably, the bigger the bureaucracy, the more internal arrangements come to dominate its behaviour and the less resources it can devote to working with external constituents.
And when complexity means councils cannot make the hard decisions, or simply makes silly ones, then government takes over by default. (Of course, there is no guarantee that will lead to better decisions - the remoteness from communities of centralised bureaucracies might have just the opposite effect).
That’s why the Auckland council had better take seriously the government’s latest foray into its patch by way of its expectations for Auckland’s spatial plan and look carefully at the quality of its own decisions
Another day, another road show
Another day, another road show
But there’s more. When councils cannot see the wood for the trees, what better to do than ask the Foreign Expert for the solution or run another summit? Or both. So today we have another talk summit aimed at boosting the Auckland economy by kick-starting the Auckland Plan. It is to be addressed by the Prime Minister as well as the Mayor, just in case Aucklanders forget that the city’s ultimate design rests with central government. Its also got the usual smattering of international experts, including Mr Greg “One Plan” Clark from London.
Less Talk, More Action?
Elsewhere in today’s Herald columnist Fran O’Sullivan calls for a stop to the talking up and instead to get down to the economic fundamentals. She asks how we might attract offshore investors, how we can make more out of our visitors (especially for the Rugby World Cup – another silver bullet?), and how we will fund and deliver our infrastructure (and by implication, reduce our dependence on central government). She raises a string of the other well-aired challenges - clusters, creative industries, centres of excellence, the regulatory and entrepreneurial environment.
Perhaps the summit will deliver on all this stuff or, as she suggests, at least “pull the major stakeholders together ... another step forward in Auckland’s success”, but having seen a few too many summits in the past, I doubt it.
Making sound decisions
I think the time is over for talking up or talking down. What Auckland needs is a few firmly founded decisions on what we need and can afford by way of infrastructure, how it might be funded and delivered, what plans and policies we really need in today’s over-regulated environment; in short, how we might just get back to the basics of an affordable, well-connected, and progressive city, one that that is easy to live in and easy to invest in.
If decisions are well-founded – and that means being economically justified, realistically priced, and acceptable to the wider community – it should not take round after round of committee meetings and summits to progress them.
Keep it Fuzzy
If Auckland wants to take control of its own destiny, it should not waste too much time on the detail of the spatial plan. Sure, sketch a possible map of the future but keep the boundaries fuzzy because we really don’t know what the future will bring. Sure, decide on what the environmental and social bottom lines are – what we definitely don’t want by way of development, and where – and set a few standards to protect and promote our physical and social environments. (After all, that’s what the Resource Management Act promotes). These things should help our decision-making, and where decisions are strongly contested or not definitive, well, we have processes for working those things through, too. Better to do so than ignore real conflict, or confusion of means and ends, or accept ambiguous (or unexpected) outcomes just to be seeing as doing Something Big.
But no straitjackets, please. Just a series of well informed, decisions in which the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. Where we don’t know, maybe its best not to take a decision at all until we do. Let’s rely less on rhetoric and catchphrases (and imitating overseas precedents) to deal with complexity, and concentrate on the realities of the here and now, on what we can realistically achieve.