Community ConsultationDigital Democracy

Better Local Government with Better Consultation

By November 15, 2013 No Comments

On the 4th of November the Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill (No 3) was introduced to Parliament. This amendment along with many others is a result of a central government initiative to make local government better or to put it another way – ‘Better Local Government’

The bill includes:

  1. Making consultation requirements more flexible;
  2. Providing for a new significance and engagement policy;
  3. Enabling more efficient and focused consultation on long-term plans and annual plans

The changes mean that local government will no longer be bound by the Special Consultative Procedure and will allow councils to develop their own consultation strategies. Historically local government consultation has been heavily prescriptive and has placed a heavy burden on councils who are forever drafting annual and long term plans for public consultation.  The bill will remove these shackles and place greater freedom and responsibility on individual councils on how and when they consult.

Ultimately I see this bill as a great opportunity for councils to review their consultation and engagement strategies and put some serious consideration into how digital tools can bring council and their communities closer together.

The key points about how this bill will impact councils is covered in the Q&A document – Consultation, decision making, and long-term/annual plans

 

Q: How do the provisions in this Bill affect council consultation and engagement?

A: The Bill makes changes to the processes that councils use to consult their communities, by:

  • repealing most requirements to use a prescribed, formal process (the special consultative procedure) when consulting under the Local Government Act 2002 (the Act); and
  • amending the special consultative procedure, so when it is used it can accommodate new ways of communicating and consulting with the public.

‘New ways’ certainly sounds intriguing – sounds like an excellent opportunity to look at interesting and engaging digital alternatives.

Q: Why are these changes being made?

A: The intention is to provide councils with more flexibility about how they undertake consultation.  This will enable them to design decision-making and engagement processes that are appropriate in different circumstances, and meet the needs and expectations of different communities.

Meeting the needs of the communities would certainly cover include engaging with citizens in ways that make it easier for them to have their say.

Q: Does this mean councils won’t need to consult their communities?

A: No.  The intention is that consultation is more effective and suited to the issue.  Councils will still be required to consult.

Phew!

Q: How does the Bill affect consultation on long-term plans?

A: Under the changes in the Bill, councils will be required to publish a single consultation document instead of a draft long-term plan and summary of that plan.

The new consultation document will be the basis of discussions between councils and communities about the issues facing the district, and how councils are proposing to address those issues.

To encourage public participation, and facilitate efficient and effective consultation, the new documents are to be concise and tightly focused, and presented in a way that can be readily understood by interested and affected people.  They should concentrate on identifying important matters and explaining what these mean – including how rates, debt and service levels might be affected by proposals – and should not include technical material.

I can hear the joint sigh of relief from New Zealand’s forests as I read this. Farewell to the mega long term plan documents.

Q: What sorts of things will be in a long-term plan consultation document?

A: It will be largely up to councils to decide what to include, based around the issues that are of interest and importance to their own communities.

However, the Bill provides that certain things must be described in a consultation document, such as:

  • the main options for addressing each issue identified (including the council’s proposal and the likely consequences of proceeding with the proposal);

  • other matters of public interest relating to the proposed content of the council’s financial and infrastructure strategies;

  • any significant changes proposed to the way the council funds its operating and capital expenditure; and

  • the direction and scale of changes to rates, debt and levels of service that will result from the proposed content of the long-term plan.

Council gets to decide whats included. This makes a lot of sense.

Q: The Bill includes provisions that enable elected members to participate in council meetings without being present.  What does this mean?

A: The Bill will enable councils that wish to do so to conduct meetings without every member being present in the same room.  This means some elected members will be able to participate in the meeting by audio link or audiovisual link.  Other people will also be able to participate in the meeting in this way.

However, there will be certain requirements that must be met for this arrangement to occur.  These include that:

  • the arrangement is permitted by the council’s standing orders;
  • participation by link does not reduce the accessibility or accountability of the elected member in relation to the meeting;
  • at least the number of members who are required for a quorum will be physically present;
  • technology is available and of suitable quality;
  • all those participating can hear and be heard by each other; and
  • relevant requirements in the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 are met.

It will be up to each council to decide if it wishes to conduct any meetings in this way.  It is not planned to impose any requirements to do so, or to make technology for an audio link or audiovisual link available.  However, it may be considered desirable in some circumstances, such as where a council has a geographically large district/region and there are long travelling distances to the main office.

I’m surprised this wasn’t already happening. Most councils I have visited already have the technology t make this happen. This will be particularly helpful for district and rural councils.