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Future for local government

The role of local government is too often misunderstood and undervalued. But what might local government look like if we could reimagine the future starting from a blank slate? And how might we deliver more for our people with more or different resources? We talk with Sam Broughton, Mayor of Selwyn about the Future for Local Government review.

“I grew up feeling like life is a gift that's here to be given away,” says Sam Broughton, now in his second term as Mayor of Selwyn. “I want to enjoy life as well. But there's a key part that I have that’s not just for me, it's for me and those around me.” For Sam, it’s all about community, whether that’s his family, Selwyn, or Aotearoa as a whole - evident in the part he’s playing in a review of The Future for Local Government. 

New Zealand is facing a number of major issues at the moment, from climate change to inequality to increasing levels of poverty. Issues that will only increase if not addressed by both central and local government in a cohesive and collaborative way. In light of this, a review of The Future for Local Government was commissioned by 2021 by the Minister of Local Government, Nanaia Mahuta. Currently being led by an independent panel, it’s looking at “how local democracy and governance will need to evolve over the next 30 years in order to improve the wellbeing of New Zealanders, and actively embody the Treaty partnership.” 

The extensive review is focused on how to improve New Zealander’s wellbeing, and looks at the roles and structures of Local Government, and the relationships between local and central government, iwi, Māori, and various businesses and communities that contribute to wellbeing. Another primary focus is how local government can more authentically embody the Treaty partnership, as is whether the current funding system is fair and sustainable. 

 It’s important these discussions are happening at the central government level, but it’s also crucial that the local government sector is an active part of the conversation around their own future. “It started from a space of [central] government wanting to change us,” Sam says, “While lots of us in local government were already thinking that some things need to change.” So Sam decided to get stuck into the conversation. “I hate complaining without being willing to step in and provide some action and contribution,” he says. “If I don't like something, my attitude is usually, ‘Well, what can I contribute and step into?’ Hence wanting to be a part of this work now.” 

Sam’s official role in the review is the - admittedly ambiguous - title of ‘Friend of the Panel.’ “I don't really know what that means,” Sam laughs. “There's no job description around that.” So he’s created one for himself. “I've taken it to be someone who can influence, listen to, reflect and be around the work that's going on,” he says. “I want to focus on what the best outcomes for communities might be, and how might we all enable that together.” 

One thing the review needs to do, Sam believes, is empower local government a lot more when it comes to addressing the challenges and opportunities New Zealand faces. “We've sort of imported a Westminster, British way of doing things into a country that never knew that before a couple of hundred years ago,” he says. “And I don't think that that has resulted in great outcomes for many of our population.” Instead, he thinks we need to consider the best way for New Zealand specifically to listen to, and make decisions with, its community. 

A key aspect is rethinking the role local government actually plays. “The legislation around local government is actually very freeing,” Sam explains, “But the expectation from communities when they pay their rates is that their council do these three or four things, and not to do these other things,” Sam says. “So they will collect the rubbish, repair and build the roads, and create parks. But they won't be providing welfare for people, or thinking about these other areas.” 

Yet it’s these areas, around community wellbeing, where local democracy can shine. “Some people are better able and equipped to more effectively create good influence in a space,” Sam says. “And I think local government is in a far better space to do that than central government is in a lot of cases, because we're closer to the action, and know where the people are.” 

While some things will always need to happen at central level for cost and efficiencies’ sake, “Equally,” Sam notes, “multiple agencies and government ministries all trying to do things in multiple districts, I don't think is particularly efficient, either.” The path forward, Sam believes, in genuine partnership and collaboration. 

A primary issue for local government, however, is the lack of resources and funding. In the current system, Sam notes, local government only receives less than 10% of all the public money collected in New Zealand. “So you're only dealing with changing the small stuff,” Sam says of the current model. “And I think we need to think about how we might go about changing the big stuff too.”

 That’s why the review is so crucial - it’s a chance to interrogate and rethink some of the structures and systems that govern and influence New Zealand as a whole. “We’re now wanting to go up for a bigger conversation than just the Future for Local Government,” Sam says. “This has to be a conversation about the future of government as a whole. Because we can’t just move some deck chairs around in an ever decreasing portion of public service.” 

Yet there are challenges inherent in making change, and the power shifts that come with it. So Sam believes that for this review to be truly effective, central government must be willing to have the conversation about what changes need to happen within it - and that there needs to be broad, cross party support. “There's no point making lots of changes, and then in three years time, it’s all just thrown out. That's just a huge waste of time and resources for everyone.” 

At the end of the day, it’s about the best interests of the community. Which is why it’s crucial all voices are heard, not only those who have historically had one. “The voices around council tables - and this is more of a general statement - have tended to be older, and have tended to be those that can afford to sit around those tables,” Sam says. “And that's only a portion of our society. So our councils aren't particularly representative of the communities they're elected to represent.” As a result, Sam says, “the types of things that councils do reflect the needs and the desires of those that feel that they have a voice, and want to be in the system.” 

Ensuring all voices are heard and listened to requires work and a willingness to listen. “The current system, for the last couple of hundred years, has locked runanga, Maori, iwi, out of decision-making places at times,” Sam says. “So redressing that, and thinking about how the new system actually empowers that voice rather than discriminating against it, is a big challenge for the system too.” 

For Sam, in the Selwyn community, that’s involved one on one connection. “Sitting down and talking - or listening on my part - to all the things that I don't know,” he explains. “So that I can be better informed about things. A partnership and a relationship is going to require time, and it's going to require sacrifice,” he says. “It’s about being up for that, and not thinking that partnership is saying, ‘This is what I'm planning. What do you think about it?’ 

It’s this ethos Sam is bringing into his role in the review. “For me to do this well, I wanted to bring together some other people in local government space that have a variety of histories that I don't have, that can also be brought into this conversation,” he says. He’s working with LGNZ on how those voices can be brought to the table, and fed into the panel. “I guess I want to leverage whatever the ‘Friend’ meant,” he says, “And think, what else can we make this?”