During the LTCCP submissions I suggested that the Hastings, Napier and Regional Councils each (or better still, collectively) set up a public recognition program to acknowledge the achievements of their most outstanding employees.

The idea would be to publicly award staff members who initiate significant cost savings, program efficiencies, or program innovations that deliver superior results to the status quo. Just as here in the Bay we recognise outstanding businesses, and contributions to the environment.

Well, from the responses, you might have thought I suggested publicly identifying Council staff caught with their hands in the cookie jar!

Here are the “officers’ comments” I received:

From HBRC: “Council considers that it is a good employer and part of that is to ensure that staff are appropriately recognised for the work that they undertake. Such recognition includes feedback and comment from Managers and, where appropriate, Councillors; and opportunities for advancement or promotion when positions are available.”

From Hastings Council: No comment at all on this very specific recommendation.

From Napier Council: “The Council thanks you for recognising our staffing skills. We value our staff and put your suggestion directly to them. They believed they ‘got paid really well’ and were pleased to get ‘good results for the city’. Several submissions worded in the same way as yours meant there were blushes around the table.”

In other words, our Council staffs remain insulated … islands unto themselves. What are these CEOs and Councillors afraid of? What is the public supposed to conclude … that the gap between the stars and the rest is embarrassingly wide? No, hopefully that’s too harsh. More likely, the attitude is simply that staff performance is “none of your damn business!”

However, the value of public recognition programs would be threefold:

1. They would help reinforce the concept that Council staff are, after all, public servants. Their ultimate accountability is to the ratepayers and the broader public they serve … their ultimate customers, as it were. But it’s a two-way street … when individual staff do an exceptional job, the public should be aware of that and duly appreciative.

2. They would help institutionalise the expectation of high individual performance in an entirely positive manner, in the process improving public goodwill and regard for local government service.

3. The effect of recognising outstanding individuals would be to raise the performance bar for all staff. Surely public benefits in terms of staff productivity, initiative and creativity would flow from that.

Unfortunately, it appears that our Council staffs prefer to operate as a closed fraternity. Maybe it’s a simple case of closing ranks to protect the weak performers. And for some unfathomable reason, our Councillors are totally compliant. One more example of who really “runs the railroad” when it comes to local government.

So it’s with special interest that I read of Finance Minister Bill English’s comments last week about public sector productivity. What he was saying about state-sector workers in central government should apply in spades to local government employees:

“Those professional groups, whose dedication we admire and services we need, have the opportunity to think about better ways of working. But the days of going to ministers and getting large increases at the expense of the taxpayer without any productivity gains are over.”

In this last LTCCP round, Council employees locked in their pay increases without a murmur from their “supervising” Councillors. Not many employees in the private sector, assuming they’ve held on to their jobs, are so fortunate these days!

Indeed, you can find the depreciation schedule for a manhole cover in Councils’ budget documents, if you look hard enough. But one number you won’t find in any of these three Councils’ LTCCP documents … a simple, straightforward statement of the growth in head counts and total salaries paid over the coming three years.

Bottomline: When it comes to the performance of Councils’ staff, or how many we need, or what they are paid, it’s none of your damn business!

Tom Belford

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