Opinion: I do love local body elections, and it’s not just about the colourful personalities that come straight to my letter box via pamphlets written in a stream of consciousness. Local body elections also bring into the light the reality that the work of people in local governments is fundamental to the quality of our daily lives and longer-term wellbeing. Work that is becoming even more important – local solutions are key to ensuring people can and do thrive into the future in the face of climate change and housing issues, particularly.

Beyond some of the obvious services the local council is responsible for, a lot of the work done by people in local government, especially the long-term stuff, remains largely invisible. High drama reporting about people in local body politics (especially here in Wellington) obscures the good work of people in council organisations. There is also a strong narrative about the role of local government especially that directs people to think in fairly limited ways, not just about the work people in council currently do, but the potential of the work they could do for long-term benefits to our local communities.

Roads, rates and rubbish vs the infrastructure of care and connection

One of the fairly dominant and overly simplistic ways you hear people talk about the work of people in council reflects the old “roads, rates and rubbish” mindset. People reason that people in the councils do the basics, they provide services in return for rates paid, and by implication mainly to people who pay rates. Anything else is “wasteful” or “luxury” spending. Lots of people stand for council drawing on this type of mindset too – “I’m going to fix the wasteful spending of council”, not realising they are undermining their own work if they do get on to council. In reality, the focus and requirements of councils is to do long-term and far-reaching work (as well as basic and critical day-to-day services) and they are often woefully under-resourced to do so. Without public understanding of these issues, the wasteful or incompetent council tagline is a miserable rod candidates are casting for their own backs. Sure there are things being invested in that are not good long-term value for the public good, but better to name those things in the context of what the work of council is than undermine all government work.

To be fair, most serious people standing for council now understand the role and potential of local government. I had a chuckle when I got one candidate’s letter in my letter box recently. They took the “roads, rates, rubbish” rhetoric and used it to try to deepen people’s thinking about the work of the local government by talking about “pipes, parks and public transport”. It is one better way to talk about some of the less visible public structures that people in council are responsible for – infrastructures to care for people in society if you will. These infrastructures really do need far more attention if local government is going to reach its potential.

Care is why many of the people working in the council and those who stand for local body elections do what they do. New playgrounds, swimming pools, pipes and parks are about enabling people’s everyday health and mental wellbeing; city level action to mitigate climate change is about caring for the environment that sustains us; and policies that help people adapt to a climate we are collapsing is about how to care for our people and places at greatest risk. It would be helpful to focus much more on the infrastructures that people in council are creating to enable that care. It would lift people’s gaze and bring different considerations to people’s decision making during and between elections.

It would also be great if there were more discussions during local body elections of the public structures that can enable citizens to better connect and contribute to decision making.

Understanding why people in council make the decisions they do

If, like me, you have ever made a submission to council, or in fact multiple submissions, you may have also experienced a desire to tear your hair out. Perhaps because you haven’t been heard, or you are now submitting for the fifth time on an issue you thought you had already submitted four times previously. There is sometimes, for me, just a sense that people in council are not moving forward with the long-term plans for public wellbeing because they are listening to a noisy group of people clinging to the status quo and shouting about roads, rates and rubbish. That of course is not true (well, only partially). Behind closed doors, people in the council (staff and councillors) act with imperfect information and some shitty organisational structures.

However, it would make a big difference if people in the council organisations themselves and on the council were enabled to talk more clearly and honestly about why they make the decisions they do and for whom, especially when there is long-term work for public good involved. What were the factors they were weighing up and whose needs were being put first? If people across local governments could find better ways to communicate to people in public what matters most and why that is the thing that matters most. And if they could do that in the context of their responsibilities and role as representatives, not just for this generation, but as people who shape our cities and regions for future generations.

The public also really needs new ways to connect with people in council and contribute to the decision-making process.

People in local government can build better infrastructure for connection and contribution 

I would love to hear people standing for council talk more about how we can make local and regional councils more fit for the needs of the community we have and the challenges we are facing. Specifically, how they are going to adopt new ways for people to connect with others’ perspectives and contribute to the decisions that shape our cities and regions.

At a minimum we need councils to create more participatory forms of engagement and decision making, especially for people who the current consulting mechanisms work to exclude and ignore. People are not hard to reach, or “failing to engage”, they are not being welcomed in the right ways.

It’s really not good enough to keep using the same consulting structures, with the same goals for consultation, the same concepts about who decides and how, and then saying “oh we keep getting the same people and not enough of the other people talking about what they really need and want”. I love that the recent consultations on the bike network in Wellington had a special children’s consultation section, and if you’re going to ask kids their views, it’s important proper weight is given to them in the decision making.

In general, fewer but more meaningful connections with people across the community by local government are a good idea. While it may take longer, and cost more initially, the go-slow-to-go-fast adage applies here. I would love for instance to hear people standing for council talking about ways to help people connect with the more complex information people in council have to consider (such as the risk of climate change to local environments and what adaptation options are realistic).

And while social media algorithms make bigots of us all, local council could lead on building infrastructure that can connect more people to each other and hear a variety of perspectives. One thing about being on a local council is you do get to hear from a range of people about their lives sometimes, and that is something we all need more of.

I really want to hear about new ways for people in local government to share their decision-making power and help us decide together in ways that work with all different types of lives people have. It is another way being led by Māori and Pacific ways of thinking and models of decision making can help, and a good reason to make sure local body politics are more inclusive (as well as the council organisations themselves).

Local governance is where the future is at and has the potential to connect people to democracy in more meaningful ways. While some people standing in local body politics may at times be a little unhinged, and their kerfuffles on social media and in person occupy a lot of media real estate, there are good people working hard both on the council and within the council organisations on long-term issues that shape our lives. Do we need better structures and systems for them to do their best work? Absolutely. So please enrol and vote, and let them know what matters to you.

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