A small "w" for "whole-of-government"

It’s a perennial story: the central government’s version of the local hole-in-the-road syndrome — where the “w” gets lost from “whole-of-government” action.

You know the local story: serial roadworks to fix the drains, water supply, phone cables, electricity cables and then drains again.

That’s how many people experience central government, not least business. It is not surprising one minister has found businesses are often angry, instead of grateful, for government help after the runround they go through to get it.

That disjointed experience includes local councils. Departments operating in isolation from each other in their “silos” impose requirements on a council or do things in its territory without notice — sometimes in conflict with each, sometimes in conflict with council objectives and often loading work and expense on the council.

One example is Trevor Mallard’s vote-losing school closures and amalgamations last year. He and his officials did not register that in rural areas schools are also the centres of their communities. Councils charged under the 2002 Local Government Act with their areas’ social wellbeing were powerless as these community centres were uprooted.

Another example is roads. Roads bind people and communities together. But councils feel Transit New Zealand, the government’s road designer and commissioner, does not adequately take into account their take on the best way to provide the linkages. (Transit contests that.)

Then there is the dump: the government and/or Parliament decides something must be done and dumps it on councils. Prostitution reform is an excellent — or appalling — example. And the central government usually leaves local government to pick up the tab — and pick up the opprobrium from ratepayers for rates increases.

Next, consider councils’ 10-year plans, which they have by law to produce, after consultation with constituents on the “outcomes” they should deliver. These go far beyond roads and parks because under the 2002 act councils are responsible for the economic, social, environmental and cultural wellbeing of their populations.

But most of the activities which can deliver — or, often, not deliver — the “outcomes” are in the hands of the central government and when power changes hands there so do the activities. How do you, for example, deliver a “safer community” without enough police?

Unsurprisingly, councils have been moaning about this syndrome at the six-monthly central-local government forums set up by Helen Clark in 1999. Now something is being done.

A letter went out last week to councils confirming the establishment of “DSG”, bureaucratic acronymic jargon for a “dep secs group”, the “dep secs” being departmental deputy secretaries.

This is not yet another bureaucratised interdepartmental committee. It doesn’t have formal meetings and only relevant members are brought in on a project or issue. It is at deputy secretary, not head of department, level, because they are senior enough to make things happen and at that level, in the words of one of the group, “it is not so much of pedestal to climb up to as the chief executive”.

The 11 departments involved are those most often dealing with local government: Prime Minister and cabinet (the convener), internal affairs (which houses the local government branch), Treasury, economic development, environment, social development, building and housing, culture and heritage, the State Services Commission, Te Puni Kokiri and the Housing Corporation.

These are a “core”. Other departments are to be called in ad hoc, such as health and education (the perpetrator of last year’s school amalgamations).

The focus is regional and initially on metropolitan areas, for example on the Wellington regional strategy. One issue is the urban design protocol, which Wellington complains departments don’t take enough notice of in housing their ever-expanding or lease-expiry-driven on-the-move staffs.

“DSG” is more at a policy than a service delivery level. The Ministry of Social Development’s Heartland Services was established some time ago to coordinate service delivery in smaller centres and provide a one-stop shop for dealing with departments. And legislation passed last year has made it much easier for ministers and departments to fund multi-agency operations through block votes of money.

The problem “DSG” is supposed to overcome is disjointed engagement with mayors and senior local officials. Councils and government departments set different priorities for action.

Councils are hoping for a switch from “management by exception” — responses to crises or complaints — to a “change of behaviour”, as a senior local official puts it. If, as implied in its tone, the 2002 act is really going to lead to a gradual transfer of activity from the centre to the regions and lower, departments need to loosen their superior, controlling mindset. And that means, say, the Ministry of Social Development or the Ministry of Economic Development thinking in terms of 10-year spans to mesh with local 10-year plans.

Fat chance. Central politics runs in three-year cycles, so departments have to as well. And fat chance with another local objective: better resourcing. Though Michael Cullen favours moving beyond reliance on rates (ditched by the central government as its main revenue source 100 years ago) and tied handouts from the centre, there is no real interest in the Beehive in creative thinking or loosening the apron strings.

But “DSG” should improve relationships and coordination. And for business that might, just might, mean less duplication, less inefficiency — and maybe, just maybe, not so much on the rates bill.