Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Terms of Engagement: councils and their communities

Failures of local governance – the case of Canterbury
Christchurch City and Canterbury Region have suffered not just blows of nature.  They have also been suffering ruptures of governance. 
Recent protests against the Christchurch City Council, the appointment of a “minder” to oversee its activities, the establishments of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority by government to take over reconstruction of the city, and before that replacement of elected regional councillors by government-appointed commissioners all raise questions over the effectiveness of democratic governance.  
In the case of the city, the problem has been a seeming inability to respond effectively to the difficult but urgent issues of recovery and rebuilding after the earthquakes.  In the case of the region, the problem lay in an apparent inability to resolve contentious water resource management issues. 
Bigger as better: restructuring Auckland
An assumption of inadequate governance was also the cornerstone of the inquiry by a Royal Commission into how Auckland might better play a role as the economic driver of the nation.  The assumption was made that amalgamation - a structural response - would deliver governance and management improvements.
The  hoped-for administrative or technical efficiency gains pale against the prospect of better – or worse – decisions as a result of collapsing eight councils into one.  How much money might be saved on computer systems, for example, or consolidating staff is largely irrelevant if the quality of decisions about where, why and how public resources are allocated does not improve.
And it’s the quality of the big decisions that lies at the heart of good governance.  This underpins the significance of Auckland's proposed spatial plan (and why I am so worried about it).
Governance and democracy
Governance refers to the capacity to make decisions on behalf of an organisation.   The Oxford English Dictionary gets to the nub: governance is “ruling with authority”.  In democratic institutions that authority is conferred on their representatives by the citizens.   
Things go wrong when the governors forget that they are there to make decisions in the interests of the entire polity (or company, NGO, or agency in the case of corporate governance).  They are not there to push a particular viewpoint on the assumption that they know best because they got the most votes. 
That’s especially so in local government where multiple candidates and low voter turnout mean people frequently get elected by small numbers.  Despite the undue influence of minorities on electoral results, the mandate to govern locally still reflects a responsibility to act beyond the interests of any particular group. 
The alternatives – (1) governing by decree
Contrast this with dictatorships or monarchies, where authority to govern lies in military and subversive powers or arcane traditions, with governance typically benefiting only narrowly defined groups and unconstrained by popular accountabiity.
If elected politicians do privilege particular interest groups the quality of decisions is undermined (by a failure to reflect on all the options) along with the legitimacy of their authority.  (There may, of course, be a place in a constitution for regard to be had to the claims of particular groups.  In New Zealand the Treaty of Waitangi plays this role for Maori).
The alternatives – (2) governing by expertise
Good decision-making may be informed by the deliberations of experts.  But allowing technicians to prevail across decision-making is also the way of autocracy, dictatorship by another name.  The cult of the expert ultimately limits individual freedoms.  This appears to be a path that Italy and Greece have adopted after years of apparently deficient democratic governance, but it is a response to crisis, and unlikely to endure. 
In the long run playing to technical expertise to legitimate decisions contrary to community preferences limits democracy.  And it won't lead to good outcomes when implementation encounters community resistance.
The importance of transparency
Communities are hardly homogeneous.  Diversity and division, competition and complexity are attributes of society underplayed in both text books and rule books.  Resource allocation decisions almost invariably favour some groups over others.  That's why transparency is critical to good governance.  Understanding why decisions are made is a big step on the path to accepting their consequences.
People have the right to know the grounds on which decisions likely to affect claims on and access to public resources are made.  More than that they have the right to (seek to) influence them.  That’s where the terms of engagement between governors and governed come into play. 
Beyond the ballot box
There has been plenty written about how councils might engage with their communities.  I want to promote three principles here:
(1)    Engagement can take many forms, each with advantages and disadvantages.  Good engagement will draw across the full range.  Beyond the ballot box it is important not to be captured by any particular programme of consultation.  Politicians can engage with constituents informally and formally on a daily basis and in a number of ways.  Surveys and submissions, protests and petitions all play their part. 
(2)    Smaller structures are likely to be more open to engagement than large structures.  Fewer tiers of management mean that messages about delivery and performance, the feedback needed to inform decisions, have a better chance of getting onto the political agenda.  And smaller councils lift the presence and accessibility of decision-makers generally, keeping the channels open and boosting accountability.
(3)    Decentralised structures are likely to enhance engagement because they tap directly into the diversity of the community. 
Moderation by management
Information from the community is varied in content and credibility, especially in the age of the internet but, allowing for the occasional “idiot factor”, it cannot be taken lightly.  This is where council management has a role to play.  Too much or conflicting information just becomes noise, making it easy for politicians to shut it out and leading to decisions based on partial information at best and preconceived views at worst.  Or else they end up caught up in conflicting information currents, and go nowhere.
Management may moderate (not mediate) the flow of information to the governors.  So managers also need to be close to the community (another argument for moderation in the size of councils).  Their role is not to shape the information councillors receive, but to relate it to the issues at hand and, where necessary, to the interests of the wider community.
Community rules
There is clearly more to making the big decisions than simply listening to the community.  There are financial, managerial, and institutional limits on what councils can do.  And the views of experts about what’s possible and what’s feasible do need to be considered.  But management constraints and expert opinion are just two of the three legs of the decision-making stool.  Community engagement is the third. 
And as councils are beginning to discover, councils that become remote from their communities are on a hiding to nowhere.   Engagement is not just about going through the motions of listening.  If citizens are not heard even apparently logical decisions will come undone and, eventually, councils will come undone with them.

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