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Frontpage News - November 2020

Greetings from LGNZ President Stuart Crosby 

Kia ora koutou katoa,

With the general election under our collective belt it’s about time that New Zealand had a difficult conversation about the future.  

No, not the inevitable 100 day plan or how the ministerial portfolios are divvied up, but about the future of local government.

If we take a look at some of the issues that featured highly in the election - infrastructure deficits, housing, climate change, three waters and freshwater - many of them relate closely to local government.

Now, if a single council gets it wrong, then it's on the council, and fair cop.  But if we're seeing the same issues playing out across the country, it's a strong sign the problem has more to do with the system than any individual council.

The difficult conversation we as Local Government New Zealand want to have with the incoming Government is how do fix the system that local government operates in?

The first step is realising that New Zealand can’t continue to operate with two separate government systems failing to work cohesively together.  The decisions made by central government affect local councils across the spectrum of its briefs, and vice versa, and often have perverse effects.

When local and central government partner in a high trust environment, we get great results.  Take the Covid-19 crisis as an example.  The necessity of having to put aside our differences in the face the pandemic meant we rolled up our collective sleeves and got on with the job of furloughing five million Kiwis in their homes for close to two months.

By teaming up through the various levels of lockdown, both tiers of government ensured that essential lifeline services such as our drinking water, rubbish collection and waste water services continued to be provided, while at the same time those most vulnerable in our communities got the targeted care they needed.  

This was a great example of where top down decision making and resourcing meeting bottom up experience and democratic – or community – direction.

So, that brings me back to the difficult conversation that we need to have about the future of local government.  Why can’t we have a Covid-like partnership that delivers for New Zealanders all the time?  This isn’t about amalgamation or re-drawing the council boundary lines, but how to we meaningfully work together to deliver our respective strengths.

This is something we touched on in the LGNZ 2020 General Election Manifesto on lgnz.co.nz, which called for an appropriate balance between local and central decision-making, something LGNZ call ‘democratic well-being.’  

It will take major compromise – and a genuine focus on understanding each other’s strengths - from central government, but also from councils. Change is always uncomfortable but we’re up for it.  Is central government, and even more importantly are you, the public, ready to have this difficult conversation?

Nāku noa, na

Stuart Crosby
LGNZ President 

LGNZ welcomes new Government and future of local government conversation

Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) has congratulated Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Labour on an impressive general election result, saying it is now time to have a fulsome conversation around the future of local government and how the two tiers of government can best work together.

“Labour’s Covid crisis leadership and breadth of legislative change have been the cornerstones of their first term,” said LGNZ President Stuart Crosby.

“Naturally, local government has been at the heart of both these areas, in enabling New Zealand’s successful Covid lockdown, as well as being a key partner in a series of reforms including those across freshwater and the three waters.”

“New Zealand’s Covid response showed that when local and central government work together, we can find a sweet spot of productivity and decision-making that better delivers for New Zealand.”

“We look forward to working with the Prime Minister and her government, to enable this approach not just across Covid, but across every area.  That means finding a place where top down decision-making and resourcing meets bottom up experience and democratic direction.”

“Local government has a new generation of young representatives who want to empower their communities, and we need to make sure they have the ability to do that.”

“Similarly, it appears central government has had a huge intake of new politicians, and they are will want their diverse communities to be heard.”

“Local government has a massive role to play in enabling the economic, social, cultural and environmental solutions to our New Zealand’s most pressing issues.” 

“If we get the balance between local and central decision-making right, we can unleash New Zealand’s potential.  Let’s talk about how we can enable that,” concluded Mr Crosby.

New survey shows local political aspirants increasingly younger, female and Māori

A new survey by LGNZ has confirmed the observation made at last year’s local elections that the face of local government is changing, and shows a significant increase in elected members who are younger, female, more educated and Māori.

LGNZ is the peak body representing New Zealand’s 78 local councils, providing a unified voice for the sector and a pathway for continuous improvement through CouncilMARK™.

“The results of these surveys confirm what many thought, that there was a real injection of youth and diversity into local government at the last election, which dispels the notion that the sector is solely the domain of the pale, stale male,” said LGNZ President Stuart Crosby.

Over 41% of the successful candidate respondents stood for their first term in 2019, far greater than in the 27% who debuted after the 2016 elections.  Additionally the number of candidates who had a graduate degree increased by 5%, to 23.5%, the biggest jump across all levels of member education, followed by those with PHDs.

Māori elected members increased to 13.5% in 2019, from just 5% in 2007.  Māori members are also more likely to be younger and female than non-Māori members.

Interestingly, the age groups that have grown the most between 2016 and 2019 are at the extremes. The number of candidates aged 18 to 40 age has almost doubled, and those aged over 71 increased by 4% compared to 2016.

“The research shows that more young Māori are standing up to be heard, particularly wahine, and that is great to see,” continued Mr Crosby.

“Obviously there is still work to do in getting more diversity across the board, but this survey shows really good progress towards that.”

The survey found the motivations of successful elected members varied greatly.  Compared to other ages groups, more respondents in the 18-30 age group gave ‘dissatisfaction with the way things are run,’ as a reason for standing, and compared to 2016, there was an increase in those under 40 citing the desire ‘to gain political experience,’ perhaps reflecting an increase in younger members.

“Last year we saw a lot of youth getting involved in political and social causes, and I think that translated into more young people standing for local government,” said Mr Crosby

“Even with a lack of civics education in school, more and more young people are seeing local democracy as a way to shape New Zealand’s future.”

The proportion of respondents who stated that their main occupation was being an elected member also rose by from 30% in to 2016 to 35% in 2019.

“Another thing we think is driving younger members, as well as an interest in political and social causes, is that remuneration has increased, and this makes it actually viable for young people to both stand for local government and raise a family.  The opportunity cost has been lowered.”

“Traditionally the low pay has meant that local government has favoured the self-employed or retired, but this is slowly changing,” concluded Mr Crosby.

The survey also showed differing motivations for those standing for local government.

Male respondents cited a motivation to improve roads and building regulations, and promote better value for council services, while women candidates who were surveyed more commonly cited addressing climate change, protecting and enhancing the natural environment, and advancing walking and cycling facilities as higher priorities.

The 2019 local elections saw a turnout consistent with the previous two elections, at 42%, compared to 43% in 2016 and 42% in 2013.

LGNZ Principal Policy Advisor Dr Mike Reid, who led the surveys and research, said that overall the results were pleasing, and that he was interested in how they would compare to the general elections. 

“As we head into the central government elections, it will be interesting to see how the social and political causes of our time influence the breadth of candidates who both stand, and are elected.”

“We want a broad set of elected members to represent the diverse views of our community.  You only have to look overseas where there’s a lack of plurality and a lack of choice in representation, and see that it’s not good for any society,” concluded Mr Reid.

The full survey can be found here.

Case study: FNDC learns lessons from tough performance assessment

A new case study is focusing on the actions that a progressive Far North District Council (FNDC) has taken to improve and address what was initially perceived as a disappointing first CouncilMARK™ rating.

LGNZ is the peak body representing New Zealand’s 78 local councils, providing a unified voice for the sector and a pathway for continuous improvement through CouncilMARK™, the sector’s independent assessment programme that emphasises transparency and continuous improvement.

FNDC underwent their first CouncilMARK™ assessment in 2017, receiving a B grade.  Long-serving FNDC Mayor Hon. John Carter summed up the Council’s view of that grade, saying, “There’s nothing flash about a ‘B’”.  However, rather than downplaying that initial CouncilMARK™ report and rating, the case study has found that FNDC is using the report as a key resource in their continuous improvement programme.

The case study has highlighted four ‘challenge areas’ that the council are addressing; building trust between governance and council staff, developing a focused and integrated strategy for change, putting community at the heart of their work and improving service delivery and asset management.

It finds that the first assessment result served to motivate elected members and management to strengthen relationships both within Council and with the community, and recalibrate the Council’s the focus on what’s most important; delivering value to the Far North District.

As the report states, FNDC hold a strong view that CouncilMARK™ has to be seen as a means to an end, not an end itself.  The Council consider the programme to be a key vehicle for assessment and performance improvement, and positioning the programme in this way has helped unite elected members and staff.

LGNZ President Stuart Crosby said that ratepayers should be pleased that the Council has had the courage to use the first CouncilMARK™ report to improve.

“It’s fair to say the Council were disappointed in the CouncilMARK™ grade they received, but rather than dropping their lip and burying the report, governance and management have shown courage by picking it up and using it.”

“We’ve always said that the grades and ratings of CouncilMARK™ assessments are secondary to using the report to learn, improve and grow. The case study shows FNDC are taking this path.” 

The case study also finds that since the CouncilMARK™ assessment, the council is now undertaking more performance reporting against the Improvement Plan that was a result of the assessment.

“The steps that the council has taken so far are commendable, and regardless of their previous grade or the next one, they’re on the right path of continuous improvement.”

The case study can be found at www.councilmark.co.nz.

New MTFJ tool gives youth unemployment issues nowhere to hide

A new dashboard from the Mayors Taskforce for Jobs will provide councils with a spotlight to illuminate the causes and outcomes of their region’s youth unemployment issues.

The dashboards, developed by leading data analysts Dot Loves Data, will provide territorial authorities with relevant and timely data on how their local economies are tracking in regards to tackling youth unemployment.  The dashboards will display key labour market indicators such as: youth unemployment figures, Trademe job vacancies, school leader attainment and destinations, the number of youth receiving a job seeker benefit, skill shortages and key employment industries.  

“We know that councils are well underway with their own economic COVID-19 recovery plans and we hope that the MTFJ Youth Employability Dashboard can support mayors and those working on the ground with young people to make better informed decisions on behalf of their communities,” says MTFJ Chair, Mayor Max Baxter from Ōtorohanga District Council. 

The dashboard is now publically available on the MTFJ website with data for all members of MTFJ.  

“Partnering with Dot Loves Data to provide a one-stop-shop on youth employability performance and indicators has arrived at the perfect time, with our MTFJ Community Recovery Programme rolling out to 23 rural councils throughout the country which will create 1150 sustainable employment placements for youth nationally,”

“Feedback from councils have been that it has been challenging to access updated data on how their community to tracking in regards to youth unemployment.  The Youth Employability Dashboard displays the data in an easy and digestible way, alongside making comparisons to the national averages of some data sets, we can monitor and track improvements with TA’s over time,”

“Historically, to access this level of data, you would have to source files from different websites and spreadsheets, which can be incredibly time consuming and frustrating to find what you are after,”

“Young people continue to be at the forefront of job redundancies.  We need to ensure that local and central government are working closely together and investing in the skill development pathways that will provide sustainable job opportunities for young people in the future,”

Young people have been disproportionately affected by the Covid crisis and have been at the forefront of job redundancies, as many young New Zealanders tend to work in the retail, hospitality and tourism sectors which have been significantly impacted.  The number of Ministry of Social Development (MSD) job seeker recipients aged 18 to 24 years has rose to 9.7 per cent for June 2020, compared to only 5.8 per cent during June the previous year. 

“We still have a way to go in advocating to central government around the need for all youth unemployment and NEET statistics to be broken down to TA level, instead of regional” says Baxter.

Submissions reveal a new way to govern New Zealand

Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) has released public feedback on its localism discussion paper, “Reinvigorating Local Democracy,” showing New Zealanders are frustrated with our country’s highly centralised model of government, and want a greater say in the policies that affect their lives.

LGNZ is the peak body representing New Zealand’s 78 local councils, providing a unified voice for the sector and a pathway for continuous improvement through CouncilMARK™.

The findings follow on from LGNZ’s position paper on localism that was published in 2018, the subsequent Localism Symposium, and the release of “Reinvigorating Local Democracy” at LGNZ’s annual conference in July last year.

LGNZ received 40 detailed submissions on the “Reinvigorating Local Democracy” report, including from individuals, community groups and councils. 

“This research is hugely important because it gets to the heart of our democratic well-being,” said LGNZ President Stuart Crosby. “Everyday people want to have a real say in how their communities are run, but find it challenging to have their voices heard when more and more decisions are being made by Government agencies in Wellington.”

While the feedback was supportive about engaging in a discussion about democratising decision making in New Zealand, how this was achieved was more varied and there was a strong emphasis on careful “evolution” as opposed to regulatory “revolution”.

Roughly a quarter of submitters, while supporting the principle of moving decision making closer to the respective regions, wanted to see local councils increase their capacity and capability in specific areas before taking on further responsibilities.

In particular, submitters said that any transfer of roles and responsibilities from central to local government should be reliant on councils being able to show that they not only have the ability to take them on, but the accountability and transparency systems to assess whether the transfer results in a net benefit.

“When we talk about devolution, we’re talking about putting decision making back in the hands of communities, not councils.  Therefore we need to strengthen the way councils engage with their communities to ensure that happens.”

Cost shifting was also raised by many submitters, who rightly identified the increase in unfunded mandates being passed from central to local government was placing a cost burden on rate payers without being transparent and accountable about the process.

“Devolution could be at turning point in reversing Northland’s growing regional inequality,” submitted Northland Regional Council. “However, our support is conditional on an end to cost shifting and unfunded mandates.”

Submitters also had suggestions for addressing the challenges of capability and capacity if there was an increasing in decentralisation.

These included the establishment of more community and local boards, increasing the role of elected members and communities in the development of Long Term Plans, increasing the size of governing bodies to allow for more representation, and requiring councils to introduce more inclusionary forms of decision making, such as participatory budgeting.

The Report is intended to inform LGNZ’s advocacy and policy priorities as it advocates for a stronger role for councils and their communities in the governance of their respective cities, districts and regions.

“Reinvigorating Democracy” can be found at lgnz.co.nz.