OK, the LGA has changed but councils’ behaviour has not. Yes, all councils have Significance and Engagement Policies, as the LGA requires. But apart from getting a tick from the auditors for that, there has been no change whatsoever in terms of enhanced levels of engagement and associated trust and respect from citizens. In many cases, councils are contemptuous of what their residents and ratepayers think.
Some councils have gone so far to include exemptions and exclusions in their S&E policy. Where those exist, they generally give councils an out if the decision they are making is deemed to be subject to the provisions of the Resource Management or Land Transport Acts. In cases like this, councils are really saying that these decisions are not significant for their communities.
Wellington City Council is a poster child for how not to apply a S&E policy, with its back-room conniving to build two cycleways the length of The Parade in Island Bay probably being the most famous. This project was assessed by the NZTA and its community engagement found wanting. Even the city’s green mayor, at one stage this project’s biggest supporter, now concedes mistakes were made.
Wellington’s city council also made a decision to encroach in the city’s green belt adjacent to Ruahine Street in Hataitai to allow roading enhancements for State Highway 1, with no public engagement whatsoever. If the city’s green belt isn’t a “significant” asset, it’s hard to know what is.
Wellington residents were surprised to learn that the much lauded decision by Singapore Airlines to fly to the city from Canberra was to cost them $9.00 for each arrival. Council’s reaction to this was firstly hunt down those responsible for “leaking” this information and then, secondly, to add more councillors to the group that is allowed to make decisions in secret.
A S&E policy should require councils to go the extra mile to connect with hard-to-reach sectors of the community, rather than relying on the hundred-or-so usual suspects who provide written submissions when the council undertakes “consultation”.
Another lame engagement technique often used to pair up with written submissions is the public meeting. These meetings usually involve an audience (if less than five people can qualify as an audience) listening to a presentation and then being allowed to ask questions from “experts” at a top table. Attendances at public meetings are often pitifully small, unless something contentious is to be discussed. In which case a handful of activists usually does all the talking. The format is often adversarial and hostile. People are time poor and other demands on what free time they may have usually outweighs any benefit they may see from going along to the local hall to get talked at.
Some councils have Facebook pages and use these to promote discussion on issues. Apart from looking hip, it’s hard to see what real value this provides. Despite the statistics that are bandied around, many community members don’t have access to the Internet, or even an interest in it, and most of those who do have more pressing online needs than visiting council web pages or their Facebook pages.
The old, the young, those with reading and cognitive disabilities, those with English as a second language, people who don’t own their homes, lower socio-economic groups and others are all effectively frozen out of council engagement. That isn’t good enough. And it’s one of the reasons the LGA was changed to require councils to have a meaningful S&E policy: a policy which is actively embraced and applied, rather one that sits in an online filing system and is pulled out once a year to show the auditors that it exists.
Councils engage only because they have to, not because they want to. There is a belief that time and money invested in engaging is wasteful. This is often from the same people who are more than happy to spend months in court dealing with legal challenges to their proposals.
So the only recourse that citizens appear to have is once every three years to vote out councillors and replace them with others. But given the declining levels of participation at the ballot box, it appears that many have also given up on that as a means of precipitating change.
Elected leaders ignore connecting with communities at their peril, as Britain’s exit from the European Union and the looming election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America attest.