One stadium endpoint: a new way of running the country

Can Auckland be made into a “world city”? Would a stadium flip that switch? On the track record, “no” and “no”.

The track record tells us there is no “Auckland” — just a scattering of feuding villages, occasionally corralled but not durably one entity as multi-borough New York is nevertheless singular New York.

In gurus’ scenario-speak a “world city” is an engine of creativity, drawing to itself investors and world citizens. The whole country supposedly benefits, though “world cities” (for example, London) habitually live lives of their own.

Auckland has shown glimpses of promise, for example in the Americas Cup heyday. It has some big thinkers. But it is not within a marathon run of a “world city”.

Example: Auckland has no reputation as a creative arts centre and no focal point for the arts, as the world-famous Opera House is for Sydney.

Example: Auckland has several world-class bioscience units but neither Auckland nor a niggardly cabinet has wanted to build them into a powerful world bioscience centre attracting top scientists and top private funds. Its potentially high-class university is strapped for cash.

Example: Auckland has a splendid harbour and the stadium could contribute to a world-famous sports reputation, though stadiums are notorious the world over for eating money rather than coining it. (Some less excitable Beehivers are calling it their “Clyde dam”, built by jackboot law which overrode planning processes.)

Example: Auckland is famous for petty politicians who get a kick out of keeping it fragmented. An “Auckland” that people notice will not come out of some “collaborative” multi-council porridge. It will be created by out-front leadership by politically savvy visionaries and logically only Auckland city can take that lead (as it has done with new governance proposals).

That implies a big dose of “do-it-yourself-ness”, not just cap-in-hand at the Beehive door.

Aucklanders are not big enough yet for that. But if someone in Auckland city some day did lead and shape a real do-it-yourself “Auckland”, there might be a spinoff beyond, or instead of, the “world city” effect. It might help loosen up the centrist way this country is governed.

Social democrats hug the centre. They want the powerless empowered (within reason) but insist the state is the empowering instrument.

Nevertheless, in 2002 they legislated for local councils to have the “power of general competence”. The presumption was that over time councils would be more active, more like “mini-governments”.

This devolution is one dimension of the future seen for the public services by the British Demos think tank (influential with the Blair government) in a report for the Public Service Association to be made public this week.

The report will talk of the need for a “flexible and adaptive” state in place of the centrist, top-down departmental structure inherited from pre-democratic days.

This is not a new idea. Since the mid-1990s, after the private-sector-mimicking reforms of the 1980s made the public service more efficient and end-user-focused, academics and top public servants have been seeking ways to make it more effective as well.

That means defining “outcomes” which policies and programmes are supposed to achieve instead of just contracting officials to produce “outputs” (which may add value but may not).

Report card so far: not achieved but some promising attempts.

Effective government also means “joining up” bits of the machine for complex tasks and making it easy for citizens to get to the right public servant.

Report card: legislation a couple of years back freed funding from departmental “silo” compartments for multi-portfolio projects; a pilot “no wrong door” project to refer people to the right place regardless of where they turn up has shown promise; an “e-government” strategy to improve internet access is to be released this week. Demos suggests a single “0800 government” number.

More effective government also means more participation: finding ways of getting more and better information of what people actually want (Demos suggests a “citizens’ assembly”, which sounds uncannily like a Parliament); and involving non-state organisations more in devising policy and delivering programmes.

Report card: Parliamentary select committees have become more responsive under MMP but a programme to work with “social entrepreneurs” was shut quickly when two caused political embarrassment.

Demos also urges involving frontline staff more in lifting productivity and improving services. Report card: patchy but ministers get the idea because they are urging private employers to do just that.

This is arcane stuff, out of sight of everyday life. But it does affect how well the country operates.

So if a councillor or MP by chance or mistake asks you about the stadium, even if (with good reason) you don’t expect to be taken seriously, set it in a wider frame: a small step for more responsive government sometime — perhaps.