In the past I’ve used this platform to be pretty critical of local government. Given that my wife and I have unsafe drinking water more often than not, and that I have had historical battles with my local council about some of their naïve (in my view) and questionable (also in my view) decision making processes, my opinions about local government are perhaps understandable.

In my defence (and, perhaps the defence of my local council) I live in a district with a tiny population and yet a substantial geographical area. What this means for the local elected representatives, and their employed officers, is that there is little rating revenue with which to fix roads, maintain water schemes, drive economic development and the like. I have the misfortune of living in a district with perhaps the poorest fundamentals upon which to execute positive local democracy – so I’m understandably a little bit down on it all.

That said, I’m a firm believer that there is a need and a value in having robust local representation. Central government is, by its nature, disconnected from the grass roots and local people need to have a hand in local decision making. While the way in which local government occurs in New Zealand is, in my view, at times flawed, there is still a need for local government per se.

But despite this very real need it strikes me that local government as it stands isn’t achieving what it needs to. This despite some very committed individuals putting in the hard yards to represent their communities. One example of someone doing local government well, and for the right reasons, is my old board colleague, Jim Palmer.

Jim spent 20 years working for the Waimakariri District Council, the majority as the CEO. I first came across Jim when I was appointed to the board of the local Economic Development Agency – Jim was also a member and he always impressed me with his local focus, his professionalism and his ability to be innovative within the tight constraints of local government.

Recently I bumped into Jim at a restaurant and he filled me in on what he’s been up to since retiring from the council. Rather than relaxing in his retirement, Jim has continued in a local government role, only this time as part of a group that aims to make local government better, Jim chairs Te Arotake i te Anamata mō Ngā Kaunihera, the Review into the Future for Local Government. The project is run within the Department of Internal Affairs and is recognition of the change that is needed to make local government fit for the future.

When Jim told me what he was up to, I proceeded (as is my usual style) to get excited and talk passionately about what I saw was the opportunity for local government. Perhaps they were being polite but Jim and his dinner partners, rather than roll their eyes at this weirdo getting excited about participatory democracy, instead concurred with my views (or at least pretended to). Jim promised to send me the speech notes he and his team used at the recent local government conference to articulate the direction their thinking has gone.

The speech was actually a snapshot of the panel’s thinking, prior to them delivering their draft report in a couple of months. As such, it was a chance to get an advance view of what local government might just look like in the future. As the panel pointed out, local government has a critical role in responding to the increasingly complex issues facing our country. and major changes are necessary for both local government and central government to collaborate and partner more effectively.

Some of the recommendation areas are ones which have a particular interest to me and could well result in far more effective local governance.

We need a whole new approach to how we value and think about local government’s role and how to deliver it.

We live in complex times. Climate change, global pandemics, lessening social cohesion are just three examples of forces that need an approach that allows local problems to be solves by individuals at a local level. But this needs to be done within the framework of national standards, better purchasing power and innovation sharing.

We need to rethink how local government facilitates democracy, not delivers it.

This is where I get excited about participatory democracy. We need new tools that include everyone regardless of age or stage, socio economic level or culture. There are some good examples of early experiments with participatory democracy, we need to broaden those across local communities.

We need to attract, support and value elected members who instill optimism and confidence in their communities, and who bring diverse perspectives, cultures and backgrounds.

Let’s face it – most people hardly think about local government until their rates bill arrives. Part of the reason that central government sometimes oversteps into local matters is that thee is a tendency, especially in smaller rural areas, for local representation to be lacking. It’s no surprise given that local government representation pays little and comes with a huge workload.

We need to find ways to encourage more people, from more diverse backgrounds, to stand for local government. Governance generally is a technical skill and yet we expect the small business owner from down the road or the farmer next door to be an effective governor without any training.

In addition, we need to harness the voice of youth – we’re not allowing those who will live with the decisions that local politicians make to be a part of those decisions – let’s lower the voting age to force us to listen to them.

Systems, structures and funding changes

Perhaps most excitingly for me were the areas that were flagged for more development in the draft report. Three Waters has shown that funding for local government is sub-optimal. In addition, local governments are so constrained by local government rules and processes that anything in their world takes an inordinate amount of time and, at best, seems only slightly impactful. Changing the way local government works and the rules that constrain it can unlock an entirely new way of working with local communities to determine their own futures.

My water may be murky and undrinkable much of the time. My road might be more pothole than flat tarseal and my council might get excited about doing things that really shouldn’t be in their domain, but with people like Jim determining what local government could look like in the future in New Zealand, I have hope for a better future.

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He promises never to run for local government.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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