So… I’ve been thinking. I know that’s always a worrying statement to make, but bear with me.
Currently, in New Zealand, we’re going through local body elections. For those reading overseas, this is the process whereby, every three years, we elect the individuals who will represent our local towns, cities and regions, and the individuals who will set the strategies and governance frameworks for the next three years.
I’ve been more involved this time than in previous elections – in particular because in my district we have some unusual situations that make this election of particular import. In addition, I’ve spent going on 20 years as the chairman of our local residents’ association – and have worked with a number of councillors, mayors and council CEOs over that time.
This post, however, isn’t about this election per se, but rather a frustration I have with the electoral system more generally.
Bear in mind that I come from the perspective of being a professional director, and spending most of my time working as a board member – the difference between governance and management is something I’m well aware of.
It’s all about helicopters and ships
The easiest way to explain the difference between governance and management is to think of a helicopter off the back of an oil tanker. The helicopter pilot has a few options: she can land on the tanker deck, and be part of the ship’s operation, or she can hover about the ship, such that she can see what happens on deck, but also the direction the tanker is going. Not getting involved in deck operations, but still having oversight over them.
The risk with the former, of course, is that when landed on deck and getting busy with the day to day, the pilot is unaware of the direction of travel – who knows if there’s an iceberg or reef that the ship is sailing into?
Guv’mint is just the same
Effective governance in a government setting (be it local, regional or national government) is just the same. The role of a local councillor, for example, isn’t to know the intimate details of how the asphalt is doing on a particular stretch of footpath, rather it is to ensure the right processes and policies are in place such that all of the footpaths are in a reasonable state of repair, but within the context of budgets, other priorities etc.
A councillor (or any elected official) should be a helicopter pilot that keeps sufficient distance above the day to day so as they can keep good line-of-sight on the big issues coming over the horizon.
If they land on the deck, chances are they’ll be constantly buffeted by the demands of individuals wanting help, guidance and attention – and will thus render themselves unable to actually do the big stuff.
Except the voters don’t get that
Unfortunately, this is where democracy falls down. Voters, that heaving mass of citizenry for whom elected officials “work,” generally don’t know the difference between governance and management. They worry about their own situation and, generally speaking, that is a fairly narrow focus. Citizens care deeply about their footpath, the funding of medicines for their particular illness, their children’s education etc. In my experience, when an elected official talks about frameworks, processes, bigger picture stuff and all the minutiae and constraints they deal with, regular citizens’ eyes glaze over. They don’t care about that stuff, they care about their footpath.
This was brought home to me last night as I chaired a community meeting for candidates in the current election to meet the community. We had three different levels of election candidates there – those standing for our local ward, those standing for mayor and those standing to represent us on our regional council.
And, some candidates making comment about the very real “big picture” issues coming down the line – things like climate change, a possible economic downturn, concerns about drinking water quality etc – many of the questions reverted to type – low-level focus on individuals’ particular concerns.
Of course, to an extent this is the role of elected officials – they need to hear individuals’ concerns and be a conduit between those individuals and the broader organizations. But still, it was troubling that in amongst the existential crises that these people will need to navigate on our behalf, we still came back to issues which are (in my opinion, relatively inconsequential)
The answer: Complicated but civics would help hugely
There are no simple answers – these problems are, to some extent, intractable. But a good start would be to (re)introduce compulsory civic education across society – both in school but also more generally. Generally speaking, people don’t understand how government, the judiciary, the executive brand etc works, neither at a local, regional or national level.
Of course, another way around it would be for elected officials to simply pretend to listen, promise to do something about citizens’ issues, and then carry on as they were before – possibly an effective strategy but one which somewhat reduces the value of democracy.
Or perhaps benign dictatorships (Singapore, anyone) are the answer – simply do what one person decides is the right thing for the citizenry and, while the citizens themselves can enjoy the fruits of those decisions, they have little or no say in the direction of travel.
I’m not sure what the answer is but as the world faces huge issues from climate change, population growth, sociopolitical changes and the like and we also see an increasing disengagement from the democratic process, we certainly need to do something…