Auditor-General's overview

Long-term plans: Our audits of councils’ consultation documents.

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā karangarangatanga maha o te motu, tēnā koutou.

A long-term plan sets out everything a council intends to deliver to its community and how the council intends to pay for it. Consultation with communities is a crucial step in making sure that this plan is the right one for the community. Councils need to provide their communities with information that is reliable, accessible, and relevant, so they can have the "right debate" to plan for the future.

In 2018, councils were required – for the second time since the Local Government Act 2002 (the Act) was amended in 2014 – to produce consultation documents for their long-term plans. This report is based on our audits of the 2018-28 consultation documents. It is a mix of reflection, commentary, and good-practice guidance. I hope that this combination provides a useful resource for the next time councils prepare and consult on their planning documents.

Consultation documents are expected to concisely and clearly present the significant issues, plans, and projects that councils intend to include in their long-term plans. This needs to be done in a way that is easy for people to understand and respond to. I would like councils to use this report to challenge themselves on where they can improve, both in how they produce a consultation document and the processes they use to engage with their community. Clear and effective design can aid a consultation document's readability, but this will be of limited use if interested members of the community cannot access, understand, or respond to it.

In 2015, we audited the consultation documents and reported that councils had responded well to the then-new requirements. We also identified certain matters in the consultation documents that meant that, in our view, several councils had missed an opportunity to engage effectively with their communities. We expected – and encouraged – councils to make improvements in their 2018-28 consultation documents.

We considered all 2018-28 consultation documents to be fit for purpose. However, many of the opportunities for improvement we had outlined in our 2015 report have not been realised. In our view, there are still opportunities for councils to improve the content, structure, and presentation of their consultation documents and we encourage councils to do so.

This is not a simple task. Councils are dealing with complicated challenges, including significant funding challenges and uncertainty about timing of policy initiatives and projects. In addition, council decision-making is a continual process, not one that is carried out only every three years in the lead-up to adopting the long-term plan.

Councils need to strike a balance between what they are consulting on and what they are informing their community about. Too much contextual information can make for a daunting read. However, the success of a consultation document does not stand or fall on its length. It is about the clarity of the messages and the ability of the community to engage with it.

We found that the more effective consultation documents used clear language, and were clear on what issues were being consulted on and what content was provided for information. The more effective consultation documents also clearly indicated where to find the underlying information that the content of the consultation document relies on. I would encourage all councils to consider the examples from Hauraki District Council, Waimate District Council, Horowhenua District Council, and Gisborne District Council that we identify in this report as particularly effective consultation documents.

Communities are diverse, with different needs and interests. It is important for each council to understand the different groups within their community so that they can present their consultation documents in a way that all can understand and respond to. Although much effort can be put into complying with requirements, the real test of a consultation document is whether it leads to better community participation and consultation between elected members and their communities.

We saw several different and innovative ways that councils engaged with their communities. Some councils engaged with their communities before the consultation process started. These councils wanted to encourage community participation and understand the expectations of their communities. This engagement before consultation can also help communities better understand the purpose of a long-term plan.

I am encouraged by those councils taking new approaches to actively engage with their communities. I hope that the observations and views in this report will help all councils improve future consultation documents and community engagement.

Nāku noa, nā,

Signature - JR

John Ryan
Controller and Auditor-General

6 August 2018