Auditor-General's overview

Consulting the community about local authorities' 10-year plans.

Consultation with the community is a fundamental part of the local government long-term planning process. It is very important that local authorities provide quality information to their communities so that "the right debate" can be held as they plan for the future.

Consultation documents were introduced as a result of amendments to the Local Government Act 2002 (the Act) in August 2014. Consultation documents were intended to concisely and clearly present to communities the significant issues, plans, and projects to be included in the 2015-25 long-term plans (LTPs). The amendments were also intended to reinforce that elected members were responsible for leading the planning and consultation.

I support the intent behind introducing consultation documents as a way for local authorities to engage with their community about their 2015-25 LTPs. Previously, local authorities published draft LTPs for public consultation. These were long and complex documents that were difficult for most of the community to respond to. I am heartened by the feedback received from some local authorities that submitters found it easier to engage with the consultation document than the previous draft LTPs.

The local government sector has shown considerable interest in the effectiveness of the new requirements for consulting on LTPs. This report sets out my observations of the first generation of consultation documents, including my impressions of their overall effectiveness, examples of weaknesses and strengths, and opportunities for improvement.

I intend to publish a further report on observations about the adopted 2015-25 LTPs before the end of this year.

Overall, local authorities have responded well to the new requirements in the 2014 amendments to the Act. However, the consultation documents we audited varied in quality. Consultation documents were a chance for local authorities to improve their engagement with their communities. We consider that some local authorities missed that opportunity. The better consultation documents presented good information on the significant issues and the options and implications for the community, described financial and infrastructure strategies well, and provided specific consultation questions about the options.

The new requirement for LTPs to include a 30-year infrastructure strategy is a good step. Infrastructure strategies fill a gap in long-term planning. The value of a 30-year view comes with the challenge of balancing a snapshot at a point in time with the dynamic local government environment. Infrastructure strategies are also expected to underpin consultation documents and LTPs, and link to asset management plans.

In common with our findings about the new consultation documents, the quality of the infrastructure strategies was variable. Overall, however, they have provided a good base for local authorities to build on.

Although we issued no qualified audit opinions, we felt that a reasonable number of local authorities missed the opportunity that came with the new consultation document requirements, as they often presented consultation documents that:

  • included too much background or other unnecessary information, leading to a loss of focus;
  • contained poor discussion of the infrastructure and financial strategies, so it was difficult to understand what the strategies were and how they related to the significant issues;
  • were unclear about which issues the local authority had already consulted on and which were new issues for consultation; and
  • had poorly written consultation questions.

In our view, the presence of these characteristics (often in combination) lessened the effectiveness of the documents' consultation value.

We recognise that the real test of a consultation document is whether it leads to better engagement and consultation between elected members and their communities. We have not had the opportunity to analyse the effectiveness of actual consultation. However, we asked a small number of local authorities about their different approaches and their views on the effectiveness of their approach. We also include some reactions from outside the sector. These case studies give some valuable insights.

Increased use of social media and other less formal approaches to interacting with the community during the consultation period appear to have increased the reach of some local authorities. Such approaches, along with the use of tools such as web-based rates calculators, were also well received. These and other innovative approaches will assist future consultation processes.

Although the consultation documents provided a smaller and more focused format as the primary document for the consultation process, the Act required local authorities to also make the supporting information available to the community. The availability of this information was not well understood by some in the community. Some submitters were frustrated by the flexibility the Act allows in the presentation of the underlying information. This will need some focus in the second round of consultation documents in 2018.

Consultation documents offered elected members and local authorities a very effective means to engage with their communities, and an opportunity to tell the story about their vision for the future of their city, district, or region. The sector certainly made good steps in the right direction in 2015. I look forward to seeing even better consultation documents in 2018.

Signature - LP

Lyn Provost
Controller and Auditor-General

3 August 2015