Our councils are pretty much like the power company.
We pay attention to them on only three occasions – when they fail to deliver the promised service (major electricity outage … or, for councils, unsafe drinking water), when they inconvenience us (ripping up the streets … both guilty), or when they send us the bill (both guilty).
Otherwise, for most of the time, 99% of the population (I’ll come back to the other 1%) is happily walking our dogs, innocently enjoying our reserves or wine/beer/cappuccinos, worrying about our household bills, afflictions or kids, and only occasionally puzzling over – ‘How did that happen?!’ – when it’s too late to affect the outcome.
And that’s when issues of council performance and accountability generally make it onto the broader public agenda.
When accountability fails, it’s because much of the day-to-day governing process is inherently invisible … and designed to be that way.
Here are some of the forces at work.
The planning process
Fortunately the era of ‘big surprises’ is mostly over.
For example, our five councils in Hawke’s Bay have just finished their long-term planning process, yielding their 10-year LTPs. One would be hard pressed to find fault with the public consulting that was undertaken, either in scale or (in most cases) in detail provided. Councils have become commendably adroit in using social/online media to test their ideas.
[On the other hand, ‘consultation’ on Māori seats was a farce – no ‘pros and cons’ or context were provided, all done in haste to tick the consultation box in a (hopefully) legal manner.]
LTPs, with their associated rates increases and grand visions are where any ‘big ideas’ should surface.
There’s nothing wrong with grand visions when huge challenges confront the community – modernizing infrastructure, addressing climate change, mitigating social inequities in health care and housing, future proofing our regional agrarian economy. These are complex systemic challenges that will take many years and dollars – and often fundamental changes in entrenched habits and mind sets – to tackle seriously.
Rightfully, we should expect our councils to identify genuine needs, attach realistic costs against those, design and implement appropriate strategies and timetables, and then be held accountable for meeting explicit milestones.
But it’s this last part where the public gets shorted – before starting afresh and asking ratepayers to bear more, what progress has been made against past plans and promises?
Not surprisingly, LTP-time is the time when councils meekly apologise for not yet getting done what they said they’d do the last time around. Sometimes the reasons are excusable – Covid-19 being the most obvious disruptor.
But other unkept commitments may have simply been abandoned, their faults admitted after much wasted expenditure – e.g., the grand plan for the Napier (oops, National) aquarium, the Ruataniwha dam. Other projects get more complicated than first understood. Others slowed by lack of available expert help. Others are victims of public rebellion – Napier aquatic centre, Te Mata track. Others simply botched – e.g., CHB’s floating wetlands, museum sprinklers.
Whether forgivable or dumfounding, what is missing is any clear and consistent accountability mechanism for judging performance. Sometimes the responsible chief executives ‘move on’.
Sure, if things get bad enough, we can ‘throw the bums out’ at election time. But even that – to be targeted effectively – requires insight into what went wrong and who was accountable? And if heads should have fallen, perhaps they were within staffs, but these public employees are totally shielded from public scrutiny. No one was held accountable for the Havelock North campylobacter disaster at either the elected or staff levels.
As a former regional councillor, I appreciate that various reports are pulled together by staff to keep councillors reasonably informed (usually not high on any meeting agenda) … or at least manage councillors’ expectations. But these are not prepared in a style that would truly inform a more casual reader. Try this one in the council Annual Report you surely keep by your bedside: ‘LTP Level of Service Measures and Strategic Plan Outcome Targets’. Frankly, many of these reports bury in mind-numbing detail what’s actually critical to know.
Just taking the Regional Council, how would the average ratepayer know:
- Whether Lake Tūtira clean-up is on schedule or not? Ditto Karamū Stream and other former ‘hot spots’.
- What pollution enforcement actions have been taken, who are the culprits?
- What will the new batch of money requested for fixing the Ahuriri Estuary accomplish that the last batch didn’t – and why didn’t it?
- Is the ‘wall of wood’ arriving by train from Wairoa as scheduled?
- Of all the funding won by HBRC from the Ardern Governments, how much has actually been spent to date, to what effect?
- Right now, today, in what ways are our four territorial authorities failing to meet HBRC environmental requirements? What is the environmental cost of these regulatory transgressions and the ‘transaction costs’ of councils fighting each other over them?
My point? We don’t learn anything about what has not happened, excusable or not.
Let’s look at the biggest collective failure of local government in New Zealand for some insight.
Infrastructure – could there be a more deadly dull topic? Until people actually die!
The Government has been studying ‘3 Waters’ infrastructure closely – drinking water, wastewater and stormwater – and has concluded that the existing structure for managing these matters (i.e., leave it all in the hands of local councils) is an utter failure that must be replaced.
The latest cost for fixing decades of council neglect is now estimated at $185 billion nationwide (revised from ‘only’ $46 billion estimated six months ago), and that process, once set in motion will itself take decades.
As we’ve reported previously, a study conducted for our region conservatively estimates that more like $605 million will be required to bring Hawke’s Bay’s ageing water systems up to modern standards in terms of safety, reliability and environmental performance. That number has probably gone up just like the national one.
Here’s a case where councillors all over New Zealand have chosen to spend ratepayer money on glamour projects over core systems. Presumably at their service have been ‘asset management’ staffs who should have known better what was happening to their pumps and pipes and plants. But giving them the benefit of the doubt, they don’t vote the money.
The latest annual National Performance Review, from Water New Zealand gives a full picture of the scale of the problem and at least one clue as to how this has happened.
Councils with responsibility for water supply, wastewater and stormwater serving 88% of NZ’s population provided data for the report, including Hastings and Napier (Central HB and Wairoa councils did not participate).
Some ‘nuggets’ from the report, generally covering the 2020 fiscal year:
$2.3 billion was collected to fund water services, primarily through rates and volumetric charges. The average residential charge for water and wastewater services in 2020 was $878.88 (including GST).
The systems reporting have 88,108 km of piping, 4,023 pump stations, and 573 treatment plants. The average age of the pipes is 34-37 years.
Not surprising then that 21% of water supplied to networks is lost on its way to end use (and susceptible to infiltration)! Possibilities to mitigate water loss exist in at least 83% of service districts.
397 instances of non-conformance with wastewater treatment consents were reported, but only 29 enforcement actions taken against those. The report observes with understatement: “…formal processes to remedy non-conformance are rare”. The same experience with stormwater consents is noted.
Dry-weather wastewater overflows occurred 1,939 times in 2019/20. Another 1,278 weather-related overflows occurred in that period. And here is the unfortunate conclusion cited by the report about those:
“Current monitoring practices, knowledge of networks, and the wide range of approaches to regulation of wastewater overflows mean that, under current settings, it would not be possible to benchmark regions or engage in basic performance improvement metrics to drive better performance. Consistency in approach across all these areas would lead to considerable benefits.”
After Havelock North, we’re on top of drinking water, right?
The most recent Health Ministry report on drinking water safety released in June – Annual Report on Drinking-Water Quality 2019-2020 – found various ‘failures’ on the part of Hawke’s Bay councils to meet drinking water standards:
CHB: Pōrangahau failed the protozoal standards because the infrastructure available was inadequate. Takapau failed the bacteriological standards because sampling was inadequate. It failed the protozoal standards because there were gaps in monitoring. Waipukurau failed the bacteriological standards for unknown reasons. It failed the protozoal standards because there were gaps in monitoring and turbidity levels at times were too high. Farm Road Water Supply Ltd failed the bacteriological standards because sampling was inadequate. It failed the protozoal standards because compliance was not attempted.
Hastings: Hastings Urban failed the protozoal standards because the infrastructure available was inadequate. Waimārama failed the protozoal standards because the infrastructure available was inadequate and there were calibration issues. Whirinaki, Hawke’s Bay failed the protozoal standards because the infrastructure available was inadequate.
Napier: NCC’s municipal supply met all standards. However, Raupunga (supplied by Ngāti Pāhauwera Incorporated Society) did not take reasonable steps to protect source water from contamination, failed to meet drinking-water monitoring requirements for the supply, failed to keep adequate records, failed to adequately investigate complaints and did not take all appropriate actions to protect public health after an issue was discovered. It therefore failed to comply with the Health Act. Raupunga failed the bacteriological standards because sampling was inadequate. It failed the protozoal standards because compliance was not attempted.
Wairoa: WDC’s municipal supply met all standards. However, Blue Bay failed to provide adequate safe drinking-water, did not take reasonable steps to protect source water from contamination, failed to meet drinking-water monitoring requirements for the supply, failed to keep adequate records, failed to adequately investigate complaints and did not take all appropriate actions to protect public health after an issue was discovered. It therefore failed to comply with the Health Act. Blue Bay failed the bacteriological standards because E. coli was detected in 100 percent of monitoring samples and sampling was inadequate. It failed the protozoal standards because compliance was not attempted.
Apart from politically-generated neglect by our local elected councillors (i.e., fear of rate increase, infatuation with more visible public baubles), how has this state of affairs developed? Could it be incompetence?
Here is one of the very first observations in the Water NZ Performance review:
“The lack of information on staff training and qualifications is quite surprising and, possibly, quite concerning. Going forward, the thought is that the Regulator will be looking for assurances that the industry is employing the right people with suitable qualifications and training, and a commitment to staying up to date with the latest technologies. Consulting companies have been managing this type of information for some years because it is one of the key attributes when selling services, so there is no reason why local government organisations cannot do the same.”
Under the circumstances, one would think that our local councils would be eager to demonstrate that their teams were totally ‘up to snuff’ when it comes to 3 Waters management.
To the contrary.
Using the Official Information Act, BayBuzz asked our four territorial authorities to identify the relevant professional credentials held by the staffs currently managing our ‘3 Waters’.
Specifically, we asked: “BayBuzz is hereby requesting from your council a list of the personnel currently employed to manage ‘3 Waters’ service implementation (and associated council policies), their official titles, and the pertinent academic/professional credentials they hold to inform their handling of these responsibilities.”
Each council replied with only a list of job titles (see sidebar) – no qualifications were provided for a combined team of 55 public employees. In each case, councils declined to provide qualifications on grounds of privacy. Here for example is the rationale from NCC:
“Council has decided to withhold the individual names of employees and their academic/professional credentials under sections 7(2)(a) and 7(2)(f)(ii) of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987:
– to protect the privacy of natural persons, including that of deceased natural persons; and
– to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through the protection of such members, officers, employees, and persons from improper pressure or harassment.”
The councils take the view on this request (and most other OIA requests that attempt to pinpoint internal accountability), that privacy considerations are not outweighed by the public interest.
Leaving aside names, without any disclosure of staff (i.e., public employee) credentials and professional competence to manage our water safety, obviously the councils’ responses are worthless. Your doctor hangs her plaque on the wall for the world to see, why not your ‘3 Waters Compliance Officer’? Your councillor can be an idiot; your ‘Operations Manager – 3 Waters’ better not be!
There is no greater escape from accountability than anonymity.
The staff shield
This shielding of staff is not unimportant.
Council staffs generally run the show. They outlast and work harder than most councillors. They control the information flow. They develop their own sense of what needs to be done (with or without public input). And they can get much of it done under the radar, with trusting councillors mostly oblivious until the sheepshit hits the bore.
So it comes as no surprise that council staffs have their own agendas, plans and timetables, which they’d like to pursue – as anonymously and unimpeded as possible – in a cloud of 10-year plans, mysterious reports (vouched for by compliant consultants) and glossy strategies with aspirational titles.
And they are accountable only to their chief executive – they are not even ‘fair game’ for councillors, elected to protect your interests. So even when the same names surface (at least to insiders) over and over for abuse of process, unresponsiveness or outright incompetence, there’s nothing to be done unless the CEO is so motivated … but running large bureaucracies requires HR dexterity.
The second reality intersecting with the first is that supplicants with agendas, who know how the council system really works, are always knocking at the door, looking to advance their agendas, which aren’t necessarily bad, but often private. These are the 1% I mentioned at the outset.
They need council support for their objective and they plot and organise to get it, with the first step being planting the seed and winning the approval of a council bureaucrat. This is not evil doing on the part of those needing council help, but it is clearly a reality that favours the insiders and it can be abused … particularly when plans are ‘co-hatched’ to avoid official public notification.
And before you know it, there’s a staff recommendation for a new track, or hub, or zoning variance, or memorial flame relocation, or closure/opening of something, whatever.
Steps toward accountability?
Where there’s a will there’s a way.
Perhaps a simple ‘Follow the money rule’ applied to any new funding request and duly reported. Like: “What money has been committed previously for this purpose (and spent or not) and what has been the result against the predicted outcome?”
How about an annual report from each council in plain English titled: ‘Top ten things we tried to do but failed.’ Why not formally report non-performance in a format not buried in ‘progress’ gobbledygook?
Maybe a small ombudsman unit, jointly funded by our five councils, with an ample hunting license and open door to council critics.
Maybe a public log, posted online, of meetings held between council staff (at least senior managers) and outside parties.
Maybe a reinterpretation of the ‘privacy protection’ of public servants.
Whatever approach is attempted, the public good – which requires transparency – must trump bureaucratic convenience. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Other ideas welcome from readers!