Local elected members reveal thoughts on public service

15 February 2021

A new LGNZ survey has found that elected members’ experience of public service largely meets their expectations.

Amid a challenging period for local councils, a new LGNZ survey has found that elected members’ experience of public service largely meets their expectations, but that frustration remains around restrictive legislation, a lack of funding and hot topics such as three waters and housing.

The report, Rewarding, interesting, frustrating: How elected members feel about their time in local government, is based on a 2019 survey of elected members.  It complements a 2006 survey and aims to help LGNZ better support elected members through training programmes and advocacy campaigns.

Pleasingly, the number of elected members who said their experience met their expectations has risen greatly since 2006, from 61 per cent to just under 74 per cent.  Despite that, elected representatives have expressed frustration, with at 15 per cent describing their service as frustrating and thankless.

“New Zealand’s success as a society is closely tied into our ability to nurture and support good leaders across all spaces,” commented LGNZ President Stuart Crosby.

“The survey shows an increase in councillors coming in with a good understanding of what they can do and need to do, but also some frustration around red-tape, the relationships between governance and management, and access to information.”

“Overall, the results are good, and let’s be fair – politics is difficult.  Our society is thankfully full of diverse voices, and they all meet at the council table.  That is naturally going to result in strong discussions, and I don’t think the New Zealand public would have it any other way.”

“This report will help LGNZ understand where we need to be supporting our members and where we need to be advocating for better policy.  Councils are creatures of statute – they work within tight legislation, and that needs to be fit-for-purpose to get the best outcomes.”

“We can’t take our democracy for granted.  However, I think we do take our elected representatives for granted.  There’s a lot of work to do around understanding what elected members can and cannot do to fulfil their communities’ wishes.”

The top four challenges identified by respondents were funding and affordability, the relationship between governance and management, waste water and council capability, across both governance and managers.

The survey also asked respondents what changes were required to resolve them.  High on the list were better relationships with central government officials and policy-makers, civics in schools, a more even distribution of resources between central and local government and greater uptake of professional development among elected members.

“There’s no silver bullet solution to improving local government outcomes and the experience of elected members.  It will take a concerted effort across a number of areas, and this survey will help us with this work,” concluded Mr Crosby.

Survey highlights:

  • Seventy-four per cent of respondents stated that being an elected member met their expectations, up from 61 per cent in 2007;
  • Most respondents found being an elected member rewarding and interesting, but 15 per cent found it thankless and frustrating;
  • Most members (77 per cent) stated they had enough information when deciding to stand as a candidate, but only 60 per cent had enough information in the first three months of being elected;
  • Fifty-four per cent of respondents were satisfied with remuneration, while 46 per cent were dissatisfied, largely due to the level of responsibility, amount of time spent on council business and the belief that some members worked harder than others;

Verbatim feedback:

  • “A massive learning curve but incredibly rewarding now I’m pretty much up to speed”
  • “The role is getting more challenging and less enjoyable. There is so much pressure from ratepayers frustrated by rising rates.  Property values cannot continue to deliver core services as well as fund central government requirements, such as compliance, audit, consultation, plans, resilience, climate change etc.”
  • “It has been exciting, draining liberating and tense; I love looking forward on behalf of my family and seeing how I can support my communities’ future.”
  • “Revealing, frustrating and Machiavellian with frustration being the biggest issue.”
  • “When we get it right it’s the best job in the world; when we get it wrong it’s the worst.”
  • “Excellent experience that I would encourage others to do.”