Part 2: The Environment for Working Together

Local Authorities Working Together.

Key Messages

  • Working together effectively takes time and careful planning.
  • Councils should adopt a policy of exploring opportunities for working together as part of the ongoing review of how they give effect to their role and activities.
  • The support and leadership of both councillors and chief executives can be vital to motivate local authorities to work together. The involvement of councillors is essential when joint arrangements have implications for the community.
  • Building working relationships takes time. Constructive relationships between the parties can help them overcome any differences that may arise in the course of a joint arrangement.


Local authority staff will more readily identify and pursue ways of working together in an environment where working together is promoted and supported. A specific strategy for working together encourages staff to pursue opportunities regionally and more broadly.

We expected that local authorities would have considered whether they should participate in joint arrangements as a way of carrying out their activities.

In this part we comment first on the legal framework for local authorities to work together. We then discuss the two main ways by which local authorities have chosen to promote working together:

  • specific strategies; and
  • regional forums.

Finally, we discuss how a single, finite project can act as a catalyst for local authorities to work together in other areas of common interest.

The Legal Framework for Working Together: the Local Government Act 2002

The Act establishes a framework for local authorities to work together. Under section 12, a local authority has full capacity and powers to undertake any activity, for the purposes of giving effect to its role, including the ability to undertake activities together. Local authorities can do so in a number of ways, such as acting jointly, establishing a Council-Controlled Organisation8 together, or by transferring or delegating some of their functions or powers to another local authority in prescribed circumstances.

In specifying the principles relating to local authorities, section 14(1)(e) of the Act also states that, in performing its role, a local authority should:

… collaborate and co-operate with other local authorities and bodies as it considers appropriate to promote or achieve its priorities and desired outcomes, and make efficient use of resources.

Specific Strategies for Working Together

Strategies and Policies

Local authorities use Long-Term Council Community Plans (LTCCP) and annual plans to tell their communities how they propose to carry out their activities. In comparing our 12 case studies, we considered 25 local authority annual plans for 2003-04 or LTCCPs9 for references to partnerships with other local authorities or other forms of working together.

Nearly all of the plans referred to activities in which local authorities were working together. Such references included the joint activities of Southland authorities, combined planning in the Wairarapa, a regional approach to waste management in Taranaki, and formation of a joint Water Management Unit by the Hutt and Wellington City Councils.

Few plans referred to local authorities actively considering opportunities to work together on a broad range of activities. However, areas where this was occurring were in Southland, Wairarapa, and Taranaki.

For example, the 2003-04 Annual Plan for South Taranaki District Council states that developing partnerships in the region is a key strategic focus. The plan outlines the council’s intentions to take advantage of partnership opportunities, including a commitment to –

explore, evaluate and, where appropriate, decide upon partnership arrangements for the management and operation of Council services.

Similarly, the Annual Plan for Carterton District Council reflects a policy among the Wairarapa local authorities to seek opportunities to work together –

Council continues to be proactive in seeking co-operative service delivery ventures with neighbouring authorities with a target to encourage cost savings and enhancement of service delivery.

Council planning documents have also given some local authority managers a clear mandate to explore opportunities for working together, a transparent framework for a rigorous assessment of results, specific timelines, and clear accountabilities.

For example, the South Taranaki District Council Annual Plan contained an undertaking to discuss areas of potential joint benefit with neighbouring local authorities, with the aim of reaching agreement on priorities and indicative timelines by 31 December 2003. The plan noted that full feasibility studies for services that might benefit from cross-boundary co-operation were to be completed by 30 March 2004, and that the results were to be made available for consultation.

Some successful joint arrangements that we reviewed were not the product of any particular council strategy. However, in our view, without a policy or strategy, a council:

  • may be less receptive to opportunities that arise;
  • may not take a systematic approach to identifying all opportunities for working together; or
  • in seeking efficiency gains, might overlook options for joint arrangements with other local authorities.

The link between a council’s strategy and the operational focus required of staff is illustrated in Figure 2 on the next page.

Figure 2
Links Between the Strategic Focus of Councillors and the Operational Focus of Staff

Figure 2.

We recommend that councils adopt a policy of exploring opportunities for working together as part of their ongoing review of how they give effect to their role and activities.

Job Descriptions and Performance Expectations

Entering into joint arrangements with other local authorities can be a cost effective way for local authority managers and their staff to carry out their own work.

Performance measures or requirements in job descriptions and performance agreements can be used to encourage managers and staff to explore opportunities for working together. Encouraging the best use of limited resources in this way is a useful means of translating council strategy into operational joint arrangements.

Expectations in job descriptions or performance agreements also convey to staff the clear message that the council values working together with other local authorities (where appropriate). Endorsing working together may also help to overcome reluctance by staff to explore joint arrangements that have the potential to change their job responsibilities.

The position description for the General Manager Corporate Services at the Christchurch City Council contained a requirement to –

identify areas where shared services and efficiencies can be achieved through collaboration with other local government and private sector organisations


provide support to other local organisations where this will assist Council activities to be more effective through the collaboration.

Similarly, one of the major challenges for the Manager Special Projects at New Plymouth District Council is to ensure that joint arrangements between the three local authorities in Taranaki are carried out within an integrated management structure.

In relation to working together with other local authorities, the manager’s role requires:

  • contracts and specifications to be met in any joint agreements;
  • regular reports to be made on progress with joint projects; and
  • opportunities for further joint arrangements to be investigated and initiated.

Apart from these examples, the local authority staff we interviewed did not identify working together with other local authorities as an explicit expectation of their job description. Some, however, viewed this expectation as implicit in their job requirements, or noted that facilitating joint arrangements with adjoining local authorities was an integral part of their job.

Regional Forums

Most joint arrangements occur within regions. This makes it important to create a forum where councillors and senior managers can discuss common issues and explore opportunities to share resources. Of the 12 case studies that we examined, 5 had arisen in the context of a regional forum.

Auckland and Southland had both established regional forums expressly to promote working together. Other regions, such as Taranaki and Bay of Plenty, had mayoral or chief executive forums where regional joint arrangements could be discussed. We examined the role and composition of the regional forums in Auckland and Southland, the role of councillors, how the regional forums operated, and the benefits of regional forums and networks.

The Role and Composition of Regional Forums

Both the Auckland and Southland regional forums were serving as networks for the local authorities of the region, and were used to share information, and identify, debate, and evaluate potential joint arrangements. They both created a positive environment to readily take up opportunities for working together at an operational level. However, the Auckland and Southland regional forums were established and operated quite differently.

The Auckland Shared Services Representatives Group is made up of senior managers, but has no chief executive or councillor representation. It reports to the Auckland Chief Executives Forum.

The Southland Shared Services Forum is made up of chief executives and councillors. It provides leadership, direction, and oversight of the various joint arrangements, and creates and supports a culture of working together at councillor and chief executive level.

One possible explanation for the different composition of the two regional forums may lie in the very different size and scale of the two groups of local authorities. Moreover, there will be many specific joint arrangements for which councillor involvement is unnecessary.

The Role of Councillors

In considering the composition of the two regional forums we took particular account of the role of councillors.

A common perception of joint arrangements is that they can be seen as undermining the independence of individual councils. The attitudes of councillors can be an obstacle to entering into joint arrangements – especially where working together may be seen as the first step toward amalgamation of local authorities. In other cases, councillors can be strong supporters of working together – especially where it may deliver better community outcomes.

Council leadership and endorsement can overcome negative perceptions and therefore be vital to the success of regional collaboration – especially where there is significant public interest in outcomes, and issues of significant accountability for local communities. In our view, where there are matters of community interest or matters with strategic implications for relationships between councils, regional forums should have representation from councillors and their chief executives.

In principle, wherever there are strategic and relationship issues associated with regional collaboration and that have implications for community outcomes, we consider it is important for councillors to be involved in strategic regional forums to discuss how to work together in the best interests of their local communities.

How the Regional Forums Operate

Neither the Auckland nor the Southland regional forum can make decisions that are binding on the participating local authorities. This leaves the individual local authorities free to take part in joint arrangements on a case-by-case basis – or to opt out if they wish. In both Auckland and Southland, individual local authorities have chosen not to take part in particular joint arrangements.

The role of chairperson for the Auckland Shared Services Representatives Group is rotated to each participating local authority for a 12-month term. Meetings are not held in public.

Conversely, the Southland Shared Services Forum – which is constituted as a joint committee under the Act – holds its meetings in public, providing an opportunity for debate and scrutiny of outcomes of joint arrangements between the participating local authorities.

For its first three years, the Southland Shared Services Forum had an independent chairperson, who was seen as being able to help the different parties to find common ground, and who acted as an impartial champion for working together in the region.

In our view, an independent chairperson can help local authorities with different cultures and perspectives to work together, and assist with liaison and project development between the partners. An independent chairperson can also help to ensure that each council is free to make decisions independently, provide a focus, facilitate resolution of competing priorities, and avoid the potential for partisanship.

The Benefits of Regional Forums and Networks

Building effective working relationships takes time. Embarking on a specific joint arrangement without an established relationship between the parties can lead to differing and often unreasonable expectations, mixed objectives, and conflicts between personalities.

Established networks at both councillor and staff level can provide a valuable foundation of trust and shared commitment to common goals. Constructive relationships between the parties can help them to overcome any subsequent differences that may arise in the course of specific projects.

There can be benefits in establishing a relationship before the parties start individual projects. For example, networks enable local authority staff to share information, identify opportunities for working together, and create personal contacts and understandings that provide a valuable foundation for subsequent work on specific joint arrangements.

An example of a network in action is the relationship built up over time among the local authority librarians in the Auckland region. The librarians built strong personal and professional relationships, and a way of working together that they referred to as the “eLGAR Way”.10 This is recorded in the form of agreed objectives and behaviours that govern their relationship. As a result, the librarians were all well known to one another before it was decided to collectively evaluate the costs, benefits, and feasibility of jointly purchasing a replacement library management system.

On a more general note, the Auckland region has eight local authorities that are very different in scale, structure, form, and culture. Individual council strategies and particular project teams have been encouraging a culture of working together within the region, and identifying the potential for specific joint arrangements.

The Auckland Shared Services Representatives Group has led the development of policy and principles for the eight local authorities to work together. It has also provided direction to teams that are responsible for exploring specific joint arrangements, and has raised issues and requested resources from the Auckland Chief Executives Forum.

Creating a Catalyst for Ongoing Co-operation

In many of our chosen case studies, single, finite projects were providing a catalyst for further co-operation. In Wairarapa, for example, joint development of a coastal strategy had prompted the local authorities to consider other possibilities for working together. The regional forums in Auckland and Southland have, similarly, provided an opportunity for councillors and senior managers to consider a variety of possible joint arrangements.

Local authority staff on working parties and project teams forge closer working relationships through sharing and being exposed to different practices, and using joint arrangements to promote further opportunities.

Personal relationships can help to build a powerful culture of co-operation between local authorities. For example, in Taranaki, the sharing of staff between South Taranaki District Council and New Plymouth District Council has not only helped to strengthen relationships between the two organisations and two sets of councillors, but has also broadened areas for working together.

This occurred when South Taranaki District Council sought additional technical advice from its New Plymouth counterpart in regard to upgrading the equipment monitoring system at its water and wastewater plants.

8: As defined in section 6 of the Act.

9: At the time of writing this report, local authorities were changing to the planning regime introduced by the Local Government Act 2002. For the period beginning 1 July 2003, a local authority could adopt an LTCCP under the Local Government Act 2002, or an annual plan under the Local Government Act 1974. For this reason, in some cases we reviewed annual plans, and in others, LTCCPs.

10: eLGAR is an association of Libraries for a Greater Auckland Region.

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