Part 4: Problems and Current Trends

Public Consultation and Decision-making in Local Government.


As well as interpreting and analysing the legal requirements for public consultation there is the important matter of their practical application. A legalistic approach to consultation tends to emphasise an "individualistic" (even adversarial) feature in the process, which is potentially at odds with its spirit.

Since the introduction of these accountability requirements, councils have been faced with a range of questions:

  • How should they interpret the legislation?
  • What are the problems and issues of applying it to their activities?
  • What is the role of consultation in the management and decision-making process?

More recently, there have been increasing concerns that - instead of creating increased confidence in local government - the special consultative procedure may be operating in a way that seems to be undermining public confidence, and contributing to growing disillusionment with local government.

In the paragraphs that follow, we discuss some of the problems that are being experienced with the special consultative procedure and current trends in applying the legislation. The information used has come from discussions with local authority staff, chief executives, and elected representatives, as well as from our observations from dealing with ratepayer groups and ratepayer enquiries we have received.

Perceived Problems with the Special Consultative Procedure

The Perception That Consultation Is "a sham"

The public may develop an opinion that the consultation process carried out by a local authority was not adequate or appropriate. Possible reasons for this attitude that have come to our attention include:

  • The local authority is unwilling to listen - Although a local authority carried out a consultation process, it had already made up its mind. It was not ready to listen to the views expressed nor change its position regardless of any views put forward. People gave up making submissions to the local authority on the grounds that all their previous submissions had been ignored and so they assume that the same fate awaits any new views they might present.
  • Too little time for compiling submissions - Often, the organisations that would be interested in making submissions to a local authority are voluntary and only meet monthly. This is a problem if the consultation period is the minimum one month that is required under the Act.
  • Too little time for presenting submissions - Some local authorities have restricted the time available for making oral submissions (e.g. 10 minutes per person or organisation regardless of the number of issues covered by the submissions). Given the complexity and significance of some issues, people felt that this was inadequate to make a suitable submission.
  • Lack of feedback about the final decision - Despite the time and effort that some groups or individuals invested in a submission, often they received no information in return about the final decision taken, why it was taken, and any impact their submission had.
  • The vested interest of a council and its officers - Some people have voiced a concern that local authorities have learned how to work with the legislation and use it as a means of eliciting citizen support for activities which they intend to undertake anyway. This can be a concern particularly with a smaller authority where the councillors and officers who develop the proposal may well be heavily involved in or responsible for the public consultation process.
  • Different expectations - In making submissions, some members of the public assumed that they were taking part in a genuine debate over the issues and that their views would determine the outcome. This has been the case particularly when a local authority proposal attracted a large number of submissions. People tended to see the consultation process as a referendum or survey that the local authority would treat as binding.
  • Avoiding making a decision - People are concerned that some local authorities are avoiding making hard decisions by constantly putting off those decisions pending further consultation.

Costs of Consultation

Concerns also exist that the heavy emphasis on consultation may be giving rise to difficulties and costs that were not fully anticipated. Examples that have come to our attention include:

  • Publishing and distribution - Costs are incurred in publishing and sending annual plans and annual reports to a large number of national agencies; e.g. the Department of Conservation and Fish and Game Councils. On matters in which local residents are not necessarily interested, ratepayers are incurring the costs of keeping central government and other agencies "informed".
Other Formats
One local authority has developed its draft annual plan in a number of different formats in order to try and reach a much wider crosssection of the population. For example, it has developed a "youth's" version, which is specifically designed to attract the interest of and elicit a response from an interest group that has usually been over looked in the annual plan consultation process.
  • Keeping in touch - In smaller local authorities, the councillors and staff feel that they have good contacts with the public and know all the issues in their area. Why then should they go to the expense of carrying out further public consultation? And why waste scarce resources that could be applied to other activities?
  • Public meetings - Costs may be incurred in organising public meetings - and paying staff and councillors to attend - when no members of the public turn up or a small number of the same people attend all the meetings. Where is the value in this to ratepayers?
"Go Where the People Go"

The policy of one large city council is to use established organisations to communicate policies with the public rather than organising meetings in the hope that people will turn up.

It is important to go where the people go - the vocal minority is known and it is easy for them to get involved (they know the system and the people). But, for the silent majority, you have to front up to where they are.

Established networks that can be used, and usually welcome a "guest speaker", include local service organisations - such as Lions and not-for-profit clubs and societies.

Ongoing relationships can also be of value when it comes to notifying that a proposal is to be subject to consultation. A council could keep a register of the organisations that are known to have an interest in certain matters and notify them directly of the proposal.

Such a register may initially favour established groups, but over time a reasonably comprehensive register could be compiled listing the co-ordinating bodies in the community that could be used as a channel of communication. These bodies could include ethnic councils, chambers of commerce, councils of social services, and arts and recreation groups.

Undue Pressure Group Influence

Both local authorities and members of the public have expressed concern that public consultation processes can be dominated by sectional interest groups. This is sometimes known as the "squeaky wheel" syndrome, where a minority group is able to get its way at the cost of the "silent majority". Examples of undue influence that have come to our attention are:

  • Reluctance to voice opinions - The dominance of one particular sectional interest group at all public meetings tends to overwhelm other groups and individuals, making them reluctant to express their view.
  • Local authority "capture" - The local authority is continually persuaded by persistent representations from a well-organised and/or well-resourced group. However, there can be a tendency to dismiss such a group for being too enthusiastic or persistent rather than give it the appropriate level of attention. Some groups will always be more active than others in being attentive to notifications of consultations, but a balance can be achieved by use of a register as described in the previous example.
Sectional Interest Groups
Regional councils have a particular problem with public consultation, in that their role is usually more strategic and proposals do not impact directly on the majority of the public. Identifying and developing links with sectional interest groups (e.g. farmers or fishing clubs) is one way of focussing the consultation process to achieve meaningful results - subject to guarding against those groups exerting undue influence as a result.
  • The nature of the process - The facts that the notifications are made through public notice sections in newspapers, and submissions have to be in writing, tend to alienate many individuals or sections of the community. Consequently, some sections of the community have better access than others to the local authority and programmes or resources available.
  • The "squeaky wheel syndrome" - Some councillors feel that they are constantly subjected to the same views from the same minority groups or individuals. The special consultative procedure provides an opportunity for determined opponents, or well-organised sectional interest groups, to play a dominant role (at least in terms of timing) as opponents prove able to drag out the decision-making process. But what is the view of the "silent majority"? Should a council take silence as acceptance? How can it get feedback from the wider community?

The difficulty is how to treat all submissions on their merits, rather than give extra weight to a vocal group or dismiss the group as a nuisance.

One option would be to improve the information available on the purpose of consultation and how the process works – making it clear that consultation is not a referendum but an opportunity for the council to obtain community views on the potential impact of a proposal. Clarifying the purpose of consultation would be useful not just for the community – councillors and council staff also need to fully understand the purpose.

Current Trends

Eight years have now elapsed since the special consultative procedure was introduced. Local authorities have been through a difficult period of learning that implementing the special consultative procedure is not by itself sufficient to maintain public confidence in the decision-making process. Aside from the direct problems (some of which we have highlighted above), implementing the special consultative procedure and developing consultation practices must be seen within a wider context. We have observed the following trends over the eight years.

Increasing Diversity

Local authorities find that they are dealing with an increasingly diverse range of interest groups and communities of interest – as society has become more pluralistic, multicultural and complex. Associated with this is an increasing diversity of community expectations, which encourage local authorities to be involved in a wider range of social and economic activities.

Such expectations require local authorities to move outside the confines of their traditional infrastructure and regulatory core functions. Examples of new areas of activity include crime and public safety, Treaty of Waitangi, youth, education, and local health care.

Improved consultation and communication practices are seen as the mechanisms to effectively communicate with diverse communities and to fairly represent councils’ increasing range of interests. A council is likely to be more successful in carrying out formal consultation when it:

  • provides good quality information;
  • actively involves affected groups in the development of policies; and
  • is itself clear about the purpose of consultation and makes that purpose clear to others.

Balancing the Budget

Communities are increasingly interested in what activities their local authority intends to undertake with the resources available in the annual budget, while insisting that rates are kept to a minimum. The focus of consultation, debate and decision-making is increasingly about making funds available for social and economic activities that the community has requested.

At the same time, both the community and the local authority are keen to examine ways to rationalise and make savings in the “traditional” activities like water and roads and the operating costs of the authority. Councillors are faced with a number of dilemmas:

  • Which projects should be given priority?
  • How can those projects be done without over-burdening the ratepayer?
  • How can they meet their statutory obligations and provide the increased services requested by the community?

Answering those questions points towards an increasing role for dialogue and consultation between local authorities and their communities, to determine the range and scope of services that should be available locally and how they should be funded.

Social Programmes
We have been told that community expectations of local government have increased as central government has reduced its levels of service or withdrawn from the provision of certain services. In many areas, local government is seen as the only form of government. The issues are local and, generally speaking, are best handled locally. It was felt that the demand by communities for a wider range of “social cohesion” initiatives would continue to grow in the future.

Need for Resources

As communities become more diverse and their expectations of consultation have increased, it has become apparent that significant skills and resources are required to develop and carry out appropriate consultation that will provide useful information. Staff time, councillors’ time, and a sufficient operational budget are essential components of adequate consultation.

In some smaller local authorities even complying with the minimum requirements of the Act can take up a substantial amount of staff time and budget.

On the other hand, it is questionable whether all interested groups and individuals within the community have the resources available to be able to make an effective response to proposals put out for consultation by local authorities.

Changing Community Expectations

More Frequent and More Detail

The community increasingly expects to be consulted about issues that affect it. Our observation is that people have a growing expectation that they will be consulted about more issues and at a greater level of detail.

Communities now expect to be consulted about a wide range of local authority activities – either before or after the annual plan consultation process – in more detail about the specifics of design and implementation. Typically, development of parks, drainage systems, flood protection schemes, the location of bus stops, parking arrangements and street tree planting are now projects that will involve fairly detailed community consultation.

Communities are becoming more discerning and are making greater demands for information. A more active public has implications for local government in the sense of increasing accountability for decisions.

Different Expectations

A number of people have told us that time spent on making clear not only what the local authority is consulting about but also what consultation consists of (and its limits), is likely to be repaid in avoiding needless dissension later.

“We know best”
We have been told that, historically, the approach among councillors and officers of a particular local authority was one of “we know best”. A number of decisions made with that attitude were now a major headache for the local authority because of constant ratepayer complaints, long discussions at committees about what should be done, and even (in some cases) litigation. The local authority was using significant resources trying to “put the decisions right” after the fact.

Annual Plan and Strategic Plan Relationship

The more direct the effect a proposal or policy will have on a community or individual, the more likely they are to be interested and become involved. Local authorities are still struggling to come to terms with how to present strategic plans to the public in a way that is interesting, understandable and pragmatic. The annual plan is still seen as the primary “working agreement” or contract between the local authority and the community.

Where a strategic plan is successfully operating, the annual plan becomes a reflection of projects being undertaken each year to achieve the long-term objectives of the strategic plan. In these circumstances, periodic consultation to review strategic objectives is more critical than consultation about each annual plan objective.

Improved information on what is being done might help concentrate the expectations for consultation on the matters affecting what might happen. There is no point in responding to community pressure to undertake consultation on a matter on which decisions have already been taken.

Consultation Goals and Objectives

We have observed that, within the annual plan and annual report documents, many local authorities are setting themselves specific goals, objectives and performance measures with regard to public consultation. The following is an example of a goal:

To use an open and consultative approach to decision-making and provide an adequate system to inform the public on matters relating to local authority activities and policies.

Changing Role of Consultation

The introduction of legislative requirements to carry out public consultation was a significant step in the development of accountability and representation within local government. However, having embraced the changes required by the legislation, some local authorities have gone further – they have recognised and capitalised on a range of additional benefits which public consultation can achieve.

The Act as a Minimum Requirement

Local authorities are interested in developing new and better ways to consult with the community to an extent well beyond the statutory requirements. The special consultative procedure in section 716A of the Act is increasingly viewed as the “bottom line” or a “minimum standard”. The practical experience of people in local government has led to the development of some principles that might be regarded as forming the basis for best practice. We expand on these later.

More Time for Consultation

Some local authorities have recognised that the compulsory minimum one-month consultation period is a problem for groups or organisations that meet on a monthly basis. As a result, those authorities have set a minimum period of six weeks to allow sufficient time for such groups to become involved.

An Attitude Shift from “requirement” to “investment”

The attitude of some local authorities to public consultation has shifted from just a legal requirement to good management practice – and a better way to communicate with their community and to represent its interests and expectations.

Informed Decision-making

The most tangible benefit of adequate and appropriate public consultation is that it will help to produce better decisions. Informed policy decisions are less likely to need constant review and revision. Projects that are understood and accepted by the community are also less likely to face pressure for revision or cancellation. Good consultation can produce better, sustainable decisions. Getting it right first time can save time and money.

The “traditional” approach of placing public notices in newspapers, holding public meetings, and receiving written and oral submissions has its shortcomings. It is a method known to reach only a limited number of people within the community, and elicits a response only from those who are knowledgeable and confident about the system. By its very nature, it excludes those who do not read the public notices section of newspapers, and those who do not want to or cannot provide a written response.

Good Ideas
“Good ideas come out of consultation.” We have been told of a project to provide a culvert for a stream that ran along the back of a number of properties and was a maintenance problem for the local authority. The residents, who were approached as part of the consultation process, suggested a different solution that would allow them to extend their boundaries down to the stream in return for them carrying out the maintenance. The result was a reduced capital investment cost and reduced long-term maintenance costs. And happy residents, of course!

Providing a Balanced View

In order to develop balanced policy and to make informed decisions, a council should take into account the widest practicable representation of community views and concerns. Annual consumer surveys are one way to achieve this. While not always ideal, an increasing number of local authorities are carrying out such surveys to assess what the community thinks of their performance.

Gaining Experience and Knowledge

A local authority can set up a network of representatives – groups and individuals – throughout the community. The network provides the means for two-way communication between councillors, council staff, and the community – to constantly exchange information, opinions and options about a wide range of issues.

Such a working network effectively extends the pool of experience and knowledge that the local authority can draw upon to identify issues and concerns, develop policy, and deliver services. A successful dialogue with the community can reduce the need for (and costs associated with) major or haphazard consultation exercises, while obtaining significant relevant and useful information for the decision-making process.

Testing Assumptions

In some local authorities, particularly the smaller ones, councillors and officers can feel that they are sufficiently “in touch with the community” or that “there are no issues”. We agree that the nature of the special consultative procedure, particularly when applied to the annual plan, is such that proposals that are put forward for consultation will often have a certain inevitability about them. As a result, the local authority may see consultation as an unnecessary expense or the public might see it as “a sham”.

In order to make sure that any assumptions are correct, and that issues are not “hidden” within the community, some local authorities employ independent facilitators to conduct periodic “community forums”. These can be a regular way to test, independently, the assumptions behind a local authority’s decision-making.

Another advantage of using an independent facilitator is that it may avoid allegations of bias, where otherwise the council officer may be required both to serve the decision maker and to conduct the consultation on behalf of the decision maker.

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