‘Poor Council performance is our fault as voters’

Retired Professor Paul Dunmore of Paraparaumu says as we prepare to vote in the current election we should pay attention to what the Mayor and councillors are actually supposed to do, and identify which candidates seem able to do the job.

Kapit Coast District Council HQ in Paraparaumu

We shouldn’t expect ‘magical’ improvements

He says:’If we elect councillors who, taken as a group, are seriously deficient in the skills needed to do their job of “governance”, we should not expect council performance to magically improve in future. And that is our fault as voters.

Councils have a management system run by a Chief Executive (CEO), and a governance system based on an elected Mayor and councillors.

The path to success

Councillors have several ways of governing well, ensuring that the Council will be effectively managed. The most important are:

  • Choosing a Chief Executive who is good at management.
  • Monitoring the performance of the Chief Executive, the culture that he/she establishes in the organisation, and the systems that he/she puts in place.
  • Approving long-term and annual plans and budgets.
  • Reserving certain decisions to the elected Council or its committees, while delegating other decisions to the CEO and the staff.

Three recent issues at KCDC raise serious questions about its governance.

The damage to the Waikanae library

The Waikanae Library shortly before it closed because toxic mould was discovered

It has been reported that leaks and mould at the library had been known about for many years, but that the message did not filter through to the top levels of the organisation.

How did this happen?

Did staff have the impression that senior managers did not want to know? Did they report the problems and were ignored?

Were the reporting systems so bad that there was no way to get the information to where it was needed?

Any of these would represent a major failing of the organisational systems and culture, a failure of the CEO to do his job properly. (For clarity, the timing makes it clear that responsibility lay with the former CEO, not the current one.)

Where councillors failed

Councillors should not be expected to know that the Library was mouldy, but they are expected to keep a critical eye on the management culture and systems; it seems clear that past councils have not done this.

The cut to the budget for library book purchases

The budget authorises staff to purchase books up to an approved value.

Shelves in the ‘Democracy of Knowledge’

In the budget for this year, that value was roughly halved compared to last year and compared to the intention in the Long-Term Plan.

When public complaints arose about the cut, some councillors and community board members said that this was a decision that they did not know about and that it should be reversed.

But public documents on the KCDC web site show that the change was clearly set out in the draft budget, and that it was drawn to the attention of councillors and community boards.

Councillors voted to approve the budget, apparently without dissent, and community boards were specifically asked to comment on the draft budget.

Any sitting councillor or community board member who claims not to have known about the change is admitting either that they do not read the information that management gives them or they do not understand it. 

Organisational Capability Review

The elected councillors have commissioned an external review of the Council’s ability to perform its statutory obligations and implement its planned workstreams, and specifically to assessing the staff culture.

This should not need an external review: it is the ongoing responsibility of the elected councillors. The Institute of Directors, for example, expects that boards should commit to evaluation (of themselves and the CEO) for continuous improvement.

When the Long-Term Plan was being developed in 2017-18, the councillors should have made certain that KCDC has the capability and capacity to implement it. If not, they should have cut back the ambitions of the plan so that it was achievable.

The staff culture is mostly set from the top – especially by the CEO.

If the CEO is fixing the staff culture that led to the Waikanae Library failure under his predecessor, he will be justifiably outraged that this review is being set up to second-guess him.

If he has allowed that culture to continue, the fault lies with the current councillors who appointed him. (I have no idea which of these is the case, or what the deficiencies were. Knowing that is the responsibility of the councillors themselves.)

So ratepayers are to pay for an external review into matters that we already pay the elected councillors to achieve for us.

Councillors haven’t been doing their job
These examples show that the current councillors have not been doing their job and that they do not really understand what their job is about.

As voters prepare to vote in the current election, they should identify which candidates seem able to do the job. For example:

  • Are they members of the Institute of Directors, or with substantial training in governance?
  • Do they have equivalent experience (for example, on school boards, or as company directors)?
  • Can they read and understand the budget of a multi-million dollar organisation?
  • Can they analyse and ask questions about other complex documents that they must approve?
  • Do they have experience in dealing with organisational culture?

Choosing councillors because of name recognition and empty promises to reduce rates are not how we will get an effective council.

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Paul Dunmore is a 25-year resident of Kāpiti. He is a retired professor of accounting with many years experience of teaching Masters programmes in business in New Zealand and Canada. For several years he provided accounting training for directors for the Institute of Directors in New Zealand. He is Chair of Coastal Ratepayers United Inc. He is not standing for elected office.

I believe it is important to frame the issue in the correct context. I have seen a quite a few Councils operate and have sat at the table as bureaucrats with ‘experience’ abuse power and misuse responsibility, just like certain Chief Executives that we are all too familiar with. Experience and governance training are not the cure-all to Kapiti’s problem.

We need Councillors who spend less time trying to look good and B.S. the ratepayers and instead spend time actually making Council an effective organisation. I fully support your “Path to success” proposals but would suggest a 5th:

Engaging with the public and actually filling the role of “representative”, supporting the interests of the community.

We should not only be hearing from Council every third year. We should not have to search the annual plan budgets to find out what they have reduced spending on. And we should be wary when: a coastal adaptation strategy, carbon zero plan and organisational review, all begin just in time to make Council look effective without incurring any financial costs.

What Council really needs is politicians who will genuinely put the best interests as their top priority. Councillors who are committed to addressing the immediate issues and planning for the long-term future of their community and who are willing to devote effort and time to being thorough and consulting the public and challenging the CEO if necessary. What we need is not more experience but instead more commitment and more passion for our community. Currently we have elected officials who represent their own interests, their status quo, and their peace of mind far more than representing us.

“Choosing councillors because of name recognition and empty promises to reduce rates are not how we will get an effective council”.

Professor Dunmore has hit the nails right on the heads. Going by his intelligent overview of council non performance it is rather obvious that our council is run by those who are not fit to do the demanding jobs they wish to fill. With the now 24 year running Waikanae library fiasco one would have to wonder how any higher management office holder could claim they had no idea of the scale or indeed even the existence of this now festering sore which appears to be the dominating issue of the soon to be held local body elections? You either do your job well or you don’t .
Mr. Dunmore states that we the ratepayers bear some of the blame for voting people into positions of power they may not be suited for and on that point he is 110% correct. In our defense I’m sure he must realize that we the voters have very little information to go on really apart from the official blurb that comes out in the little voting booklet you get with voting papers or comments made by each candidate in local media outlets about their abbreviated past histories and possible intentions should they win.
The one thing Paul has not covered and might have been right not to do so in such a well considered piece of writing is the ‘human factor’. We all have our weak points and in some this takes the form of control issues. There will has always been those who believe they are more qualified to tell others how to live, behave etc. These people sometimes gravitate to jobs where they can have power over others be it politics, management, the police, army etc. Once ensconced in these positions they can do some significant damage to society or make the it better. It now seems our recent well paid CEO who hailed from Nelson to which he has now returned was of the first kind and not the second. As I have stated on here before, whatever happens we the voting public will end up paying for it. The other side of the problem is that we only get to vote for politicians. The staff who don’t pull their weight but get paid well to do so we have no power to change. In reality we are dealing with a political corporation which was stupidly created in 1986 by politicians in Wellytown who said it was to fast track democracy. They were quite correct in this notion. Democracy as such was fast tracked right out the door and hasn’t been heard from or seen since. I apologize Alan for going well over your 200 word limit but some things just can’t be elucidated in that many collections of the alphabet, thanks.

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