A part of the government gets more assertive

Topping the list of officials’ post-election briefings to incoming ministers (BIMs), is, for the first time, a BIG — a briefing to the whole incoming government by all chief executives (CEOs). But is it actually to the whole government? The BIG guys might have missed something.

A usually sceptical senior minister is impressed with the BIG’s tenor. A senior public servant warns not to get excited: that it was done is more important than what it says.

In behind the BIG are “narratives” setting out agencies’ plans for the next four budgeting years in a 10-year context.

The BIG is part of an attempt to get more cross-portfolio cooperation, discouraged by the 1988 reforms which made CEOs managerially responsible for employment, accounts and “outputs”.

There has been some movement.

One is the “justice pipeline”: into the police end go delinquents and out of the prisons end come hardened criminals headed for the police end. The overarching pipeline approach has got some efficiencies and some strategic focus.

Another is sectoral clusters, such as one on resources, which have generated some cross-portfolio thinking and talk. A law change has made it easier to fund multi-agency activities.

But most action is still in “silos”. So at “summits” in March and September CEOs agreed, in Deputy State Services Commissioner Al Morrison’s words, to try to “get the public services to think and operate across the whole government system” — in effect to make each CEO a CEO of the whole public service as well as of an agency.

The BIG is a result.

But a part of the government is missing from the BIG: local and regional governments. They manage around a tenth of all government spending and around half of all government physical assets.

Ministers and agencies play the haughty big brother/sister in this extended family of government.

Local Government Minister Paula Bennett talks of “loopy” planning rules and has set up a witchhunt group. Bill English talks of planning “zealots” and blames rising inequality in part on councils’ house consenting. Simon Bridges flipped the Auckland Council’s ideas for financing ambitious transport infrastructure.

Ministers often dump duties on councils without funding. They have squeezed councils’ share of the national petrol tax monopoly. They then join in the populist braying that councils are spendthrift and incompetent.

But the little brothers/sisters are becoming assertive.

This is in part an offshoot of big Auckland. Ministers, initially dismissive, found they had to take it seriously or risk a business and voter backlash.

Auckland can afford capable senior staff. The council wants, and plans to have, a bigger role in social development. That upsets Beehive patch protectors.

Another factor has been Malcolm Alexander’s arrival as chief executive of Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), the councils’ national voice.

Alexander has employed a dastardly tool: research and strategy..

Last week LGNZ produced an analysis of water supply, wastewater and stormwater management. It found widely varying standards, asset quality, revenue raising methods and resources — some small councils want to put houses back on tank water. A “solutions paper” early next year will promote a best-practice framework.

Two weeks back LGNZ issued a dismaying 64-page “think piece” on risk reduction of natural hazards: earthquakes, volcanoes, climate change, tornados, storms, floods and droughts. It found lack of coordinated national leadership, little monitoring, no consistent basis for decisions and “dispersed information and guidance”.

An example, highlighted again at the weekend by the United Nations, is adaptation to climate change, notably the impact of sea level rise. Ministers have left it to councils, with little guidance or help to deal with complex, contentious, long-term property rights and infrastructure conundrums — even though major local events have national ramifications.

One ramification is insurance (or not). In late 2013 an LGNZ paper on insurance triggered by the Christchurch earthquake recommended a new agency to contract insurance for all councils.

The model is LGNZ’s funding agency, which issues debt on behalf of 30 councils. This has cut the cost of borrowing close to that of the central government.

In December LGNZ will release a consultation paper on options for funding. Governments have flatly rejected options to supplement rates, even those by a royal commission in 2007.

These initiatives put councils on the front foot instead of responding, powerless, to ministerial fiats and attacks.

Well-researched national proposals for action and collaborative initiatives may over time cement local government as a real, competent part of government. Down the track, there could even be logic in councils delivering more services now done by central government, as in most other rich countries.

Can ministers adjust to assertive councils? Or will “loopy” and “zealot” still be in their vocabulary?