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Lee Speech: Local Govt Human Resources Conference

10.45am Thursday 29 November 2001 Hon Sandra Lee Speech Notes
Keynote speech to Local Government Human Resources conference
Copthorne Hotel, Plimmer Towers, Wellington


Thank you for inviting me here to speak with you this morning.

The process of reviewing the 1974 Local Government Act, which commenced more than 18 months ago, has reached the stage where a new Local Government Bill is almost ready for introduction in the House.

We are running on a very tight schedule. However, all going well, we intend to have the new Bill passed into law by the middle of next year.

Obviously I can not share with you the final decisions that my colleagues and I are still working through. However I thought it might be helpful if I start off by telling you what the local government review that preceded the new Bill was not about.

Some of you may have had first hand experience of the last great upheaval in local government in the late 1980s ¡V or, failing that, you have probably had the opportunity to at least speak to one or two of the survivors.

Opinions were sharply divided at the time about the wisdom of many of the changes that were made.

While I personally opposed much of what took place back then, I would freely admit now that there is little public clamour for a return to the pre-1989 situation.

So, the first thing to note about the proposed changes in the current local government review is that the review was not about turning the clock-back.

Much of the focus back in the late 80's was on the effect of the changes on the elected representatives and representation issues generally- whether this or that locality would continue to have a mayor, or on the likely consequences resulting from this or that reduction in the number of elected members.

The move to ever greater efficiency and effectiveness - and too bad about the consequences - which pretty much epitomised the times, brought with it serious job losses among local authority staff with all the stress and dislocation normally associated with measures of this kind.

These were then, and remain to this day, important considerations.

The second thing the local government review was not about was restructuring.

In my view, past structural reforms have, in a number of instances, resulted in new units of local government that have been something less than perfect.

I know of many communities, particularly rural ones, up and down the country, that were left with a keen sense of loss when their local councils were integrated into larger, seemingly anonymous units of local government.

All of a sudden these people found that their local council offices were no longer just down the road but in many cases an hour or more¡¦s drive away.

I know that after the experiences that we have all been through over the years that the words ¡§review¡¨ and "reform" carry with them something of a negative connotation, although there have also been significant improvements in local government management and decision-making.

However, in the case of our review of the Local Government Act, it has not been an exercise in cost cutting, staff ¡§rationalisation¡¨ or restructuring.

So what was the review about?

If I were to be limited to a single word of explanation it would be ¡§empowerment¡¨.

We are looking to give local authorities the statutory power to respond to the demands of their communities. And giving to communities the capacity to hold their councils accountable for the actions taken on their behalf.

You will all, no doubt, be aware of the limitations of the present Local Government Act. It is, in essence, a collection of legislative bits and pieces, some of which are over a century old, all grafted on to each other.

It is prescriptive for the most part, cumbersome, time consuming and expensive to interpret, and sorely lacking in structural coherence.

The general powers proposed for the new Local Government BIll, on the other hand, are intended to be significantly clearer.

In essence they will allow a council to do all things necessary to achieve its newly stated purpose, which is a new concept in itself, provided that the activity is consistent with the law.

This should be quite liberating for elected councils and for council staff.

We are looking to enable councils in future to be able to take such action as they consider necessary to fix a given problem rather than simply advising people¡Xas they often have to do now¡Xthat the Local Government Act prevents the type of remedial action necessary. That is what is meant by empowerment.

You probably have noted that the review suggested several changes in the area of governance.

Governance of course, involves the elected Mayor and the other elected members managing the relationship with the chief executive and--through him or her¡Xwith the organisation as a whole.

The proposals in the consultation document included:
„h the scrapping of the provision in the current Act for a council to appoint more than one person¡Xa group of senior executives for instance¡Xto manage a local authority;
„h the confirmation of the current responsibilities of the CEO, in the new Act;
„h making the CEO subject to a performance management system which:
„h sets performance expectations;
„h determines the authorities and powers to be delegated to the CEO;
„h establishes a review structure; and
„h establishes a system to monitor standards and the achievement of performance targets.

The review also proposed that, as at present, CEOs be employed on a fixed term contract up for to five years, with the position being advertised after five years.

There was general support for all these proposals during the consultation process.

The new legislation will also be about partnerships. Again you are only too aware that the relationship between central government and local government was strained for many years.

During the past decade, central government was generally perceived by many as having foisted far-reaching changes on local government with little regard for the views of the sector.

When we came to power the Labour Alliance coalition wanted to make a fresh start with local government, and in particular, we wanted to forge a strong partnership with it.

Over the past two years I believe that we have both been successful in doing that.

Initially we proposed an annual forum between local and central government led by the Prime Minister and myself on the one hand, and local government representatives on the other.

It soon became clear, however, that an annual meeting would not be enough to do justice to the developing relationship, so the forum is now being held twice a year, with a huge agenda before it.

Now with three forums behind us and the fourth coming up next month, the results have exceeded our expectations.

Through this process, we have been able to develop new ways of working together with more open working relationships between elected members on both sides and between our respective officials.

This partnership can be extended out to partnerships among various players with the ultimate aim of enhancing the unique local identity of every community.

The Local Government Act review consultation document suggested the purpose of local government might be:

¡§To enable local decision making by and on behalf of people in their local communities to promote their social, economic, cultural and environmental well being, now and in the future¡¨.

Directly acknowledging environmental sustainability for the first time in the Act is highly significant, and will no doubt play an increasingly important part in the life of each community in coming years.

I hope that relevant players in the community will increasingly take part in partnership arrangements involving both local and regional councils, and with agencies such as DOC, and MfE, as necessary, in the furtherance of environmental objectives.

From an economic standpoint, my colleague Jim Anderton, the Deputy Prime Minister, has been working to foster partnership arrangements within the regions to enhance economic opportunities, and in particular employment, through the Ministry of Economic Development.

Local authorities are likely to assume an increasingly important role in these arrangements as time goes on.

The excellent report ¡§Quality of Life in NZ¡¦s Six Largest Cities¡¨ published earlier this year shows that some of the larger councils are already thinking well beyond the trio of ¡§roads, rubbish and rates¡¨ which have traditionally been the focus of local government thinking.

They are now also focussing on the overall conditions in our cities and of the people who live in them, and how their social needs might be properly addressed at the local level.

The new Local Government Act should make it much easier for local authorities to undertake initiatives on behalf of their communities.

But this should not be construed as a cunning plan by central government to shift its responsibilities onto local government.

This is not an exercise in devolution. Central government agencies, such as the Ministry of Social Development will continue to fund and provide all of their traditional services.

Increased accountability means that Mayors and elected councillors are likely to be under even greater scrutiny.

This in turn could lead to greater pressures on chief executives and on you, as human resources managers, to deliver quality services to your councils and in turn to your communities.

I make no apology for this. Wider general powers are not a one-way street.

Empowerment must be balanced by increased accountability.

Hand in hand with increased accountability goes increased transparency.

Accountability will also extend to Local Authority Trading Enterprises.

The Local Government (Elected Member, Remuneration and Trading Enterprises) Amendment Bill, which is currently awaiting its second reading debate in Parliament, will bring LATEs into the fold of public accountability.

This is to be achieved by extending the coverage of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act and the Ombudsmens Act to LATEs.

It will also be achieved by requiring these organisations to exhibit a sense of social and environmental responsibility by having regard to the communities in which they operate.

These enterprises are community assets and the owners of these assets have every right to information about their activities.

Transparency and accountability are necessary precursors to greater community input into decision-making.

One of the key underlying purposes of the new Bill will be to encourage increased participation by local people, and communities, in local government.

Both coalition partners are firmly of the view that increased participation is essential for the health of our democratic way of life.

We need more people participating in local authority consultation processes.

We need more people standing for office as councillors and above all we need more people participating in local authority elections.

Local government must be more responsive to its communities and to do this it must have public input into local decision-making.

If this is going to happen, people must have access to good quality information. In short they need to know exactly what¡¦s going on. Greater transparency is the key.

A new mechanism is proposed that would be known as the Long Term Council Plan.

The consultation document proposed that this Plan should span a period up to ten years and provide the ¡§big picture¡¨ on how all of the council¡¦s work is intended to fit together, to be a road map of where the council intends to go.

After proper consultation it should provide an accepted community strategy for the district city or region.

The Annual Plan could then focus on more immediate issues, such as any proposals for rates increases and the like.

For communities it would reduce the likelihood of any nasty surprises suddenly emerging. For you, it would reduce the amount of work that currently goes into the annual planning process.

Empowerment is also about communities making choices.

It¡¦s really going to be up to individual communities to let their local authority know what their priorities are for the available resources.

I am reminded of that old adage: ¡§Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die¡¨!

We all want more and better facilities and services, that¡¦s only natural, but nobody, least of all ratepayers, are all that keen when it comes to fronting-up with the hard earned cash.

That too, is only natural.

Mechanisms such as the Long Term Council Plan should be there to help everyone lift their game and focus on the ball.

The proposed use of best practice models should also be of great benefit.

Quality and service, to me in a local government context, implies built-in consultation, planning and delivery processes.

I came across a very good example of this recently.

Earlier this year, Manukau City Council opened a new Youth Library facility for young people in the Dawson Road area of Otara.

Over a period of five years the council undertook informal discussions with leaders in the community about their needs, commissioned independent research, and included the concept in its Library Strategy document.

Extensive consultations were also conducted with the community to determine exactly what services were required and asked for.

Local students were actually consulted to see what they wanted from the space and how they would use it if they had it.

The result is the Tupu Youth Library, which also doubles as an educational resource centre, with computer resources, project resources and a place to do school homework. It is also¡Xof course¡Xa library in the traditional sense.

Manukau Council took the time to find out what the need was, consulted extensively, and encouraged the participation of everyone interested, including the kids.

The result is a high quality service valued by its users, and the broader community alike.

I hope and expect, once the new Local Government Act is in place, that more and more local authorities will engage with their communities and listen to what they have to say.

And I hope they deliver not only the services desired, in the most cost effective way, but also deliver the highest possible quality service as well.

I was interested to see that a number of the topics you will examine and debate over the next two days relate to the problems you, as Human Resources Managers, face in attracting talented people.

I believe that once the new Local Government Bill is in place¡Xand councils can really respond to the needs of their communities¡Xthat council management will be faced with some interesting and exciting challenges.

Many of the issues you are looking at will provide new ways to meet these challenges.

Equally, the challenges will hopefully attract talented people to be part of the mission that councils are set, to meet those challenges.

I wish you well in your deliberations over the next two days and look forward to learning of the outcome of your work at this conference.


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