Why the Wellington City Council finds itself in stasis; it’s about governance, not management

In my last article, I wrote about the Council facing stasis after 120 days of being in office. The question is why? There are unintended consequences to that lack of ability to create change and we are starting to see those occur.

The problem with coming in as a new Councillor is that you think you can immediately reach your fingers into the machinery of local government and make a change. The only thing that approach is going to give you is fewer fingers.

It’s a boring topic; however, often new Councillors have no education into the difference between “management” and “governance.” They often mistake the two leading to a resistant Council proper that must deal with Councillors coming down out of governance into the internal management machinery.

Sources tell me that this is already happening with this Council and that staff are not surprised by this, though frustrated that it is happening. Council must govern and leave the machinery of doing to the organisation proper, who are equipped to operationalise decisions (you hope.)

Even governance is not working well in my opinion. Governance requires principles and generally, in New Zealand public service, these are categorised as Purpose, Accountability, Leadership, Professionalism, Trust, Transparency, and Risk Management.

Let’s have a look at each.

Purpose is about making decisions that are relevant and being decisive. While some on Council display those qualities, many don’t, allowing themselves to be caught short through lack of research before meetings and bringing their own bias, as opposed to realising they are elected by the people, for the people, in order allow progress.

Accountability is key and links to leadership. Currently, anytime anything goes wrong, or looks too hard, Councillors scatter and cannot be found. In the case of the ongoing sewage saga, we’d expect the Council to be accountable for this, and be seen to be so, although it is an outsourced service. However, they have been happy to run a mile from the issue.

Leadership has been sadly lacking and could make all the difference. Simply communicating about activity and sparking a public debate on issues would make a lot of sense. But we don’t see the Councillors nor Mayor all that often unless they are taking selfies somewhere.

We expect our Councillors not only to behave professionally but also to have some practical experience at life and professions. While we can vote in whomever we wish, assigning people to portfolios that they will be able to use their professional skills on is critical. The portfolios as assigned, in my opinion, often don’t do that, dropping Councillors into areas of which they may think they have the experience, but in fact, are worse than an amateur.

Trust. I don’t need to comment on this do I? Trust and confidence are at the very heart of local government, all government, and the Council suffers from a severe lack of it. It’s an area that requires urgent work.

Transparency. Again, sadly lacking. The Council is seen as a closed shop that is not nearly transparent enough. In other cities, much progress has been made by tackling this one area and proactively releasing data, information, reports, and emails proactively, rather than waiting for an OIA, which is often treated as hostile by the organisation.

Transparency is also about reporting on success and failure against each Councillor’s accountability. It’s important, because if a Councillor is failing in a portfolio area, consistently, then things need to be changed otherwise stasis occurs and then eventual collapse.

Risk Management tends to focus more on public relations than actual risk, in my opinion. There are significant risks that need to be managed, and again, these aren’t transparent.

For those of you that know the Council, you can quickly see that governance is not operating optimally and that means that the entire machine is not operating well. Hence, stasis, and worse, potential blind spots.

Unfortunately, another area that is causing some stasis is the creation of what I would call “centralist” portfolios. That is portfolios that tend to favour the central city as opposed to the wards. Even city-wide portfolios tend to lean in that direction and therefore ward Councillors forget they are representing a ward and neglect it.

We can see that in as much as Councillors rarely comment on issues within their wards and quickly become disconnected from their communities. They fall silent on local issues where they were once advocates, disappearing.

As I have said before, I firmly believe that being a Councillor is not only a full-time job; it’s also a full-time job with extremely long hours. Those Councillors that choose to hold down another job or work commitments outside of the role are almost always less effective than those that commit full-time. This assertion comes from a decade of analysing the performance of Councillors across a range of measures, including that particular one.

All of this leads us to the fact that the Council is not performing that well, and when it doesn’t, stasis occurs. With a lack of experienced Councillors in their respective portfolio areas, generally, the problem is compounded.

Like it or not, the majority of Councillors vote on their own bias and party lines where affiliated (declared or not), rather than taking into account the wishes of their residents and the expert advice they are given by Officers.

This one fact throws any hope of progress out the window unless it is an issue that is an absolute no-brainer.

Council is largely broken. We could always say that the basics were getting done, rubbish being picked up, sewage being treated, but we are now entering an era when even basic services are starting to look at risk.

Within that poor-performing governance system, we can be assured that major issues facing the issue will not get fixed, they’ll get worse, and at some point, a crisis stage will be reached where radical change is implemented.

Better to implement radical change now, while there is still wiggle room to get it right.