A public management expert from Massey University says more councillors and community boards are needed to help people re-engage with local government.
"The Government's obsession with a narrow view of local body efficiency totally fails to tackle the core problem of local bodies in New Zealand - that of the declining level of citizen participation," says Dr Andy Asquith.
He says the Government's new Local Government Efficiency Taskforce, one of the initiatives outlined in the Better Local Government reform programme announced earlier this year, completely misses the point.
In a new paper titled The Role, Scope and Scale of Local Government in New Zealand, Dr Asquith argues that community dis-engagement, not a lack efficiency, is the main weakness of our system of local government.
"Despite efforts, including the move towards postal voting, fewer and fewer of us are participating in local body elections. As this is our main involvement with local government, it is a disturbing trend," he says.
The general confusion over the scope of the role of mayors is another key reason why communities are not engaged with their local authorities, Dr Asquith says.
"There is a clear need for the formalisation, through legislation, of the power of the mayor. This would mean mayors could be held directly accountable at the ballot for their actions. At the moment they are held accountable for actions when, in reality, they don't have the power to do anything."
Dr Asquith says from an international perspective, New Zealand is actually "under councillored", and there is a clear case for increasing the number of locally-elected representatives, and an even stronger case for more local authorities to create community boards.
"Quite simply, if every local authority was required to create community boards, as opposed to being given the option to create them, we would have a tier of local government which was much closer to the people. Too often local authorities are seen as distant organisations which are out of touch with the realities of everyday life of New Zealanders."
Given that local authorities are often responsible for assets worth billions, there is also a need for better training of councillers. A Massey University researcher found that only 32 per cent of those elected to serve on local councils and boards had received education or training for the roles they were expected to fulfil.
Dr Asquith says local government in New Zealand is at a crossroads, and any reform needs to address the issue of community disengagement.
He is also concerned that the Government will use the Kaipara District Council, which is heavily in debt due to cost blowouts from a controversial wastewater scheme, as a reason to introduce legislation to curtail the activities of local councils.
"Rather than seeking to minimise the role of local government, the central Government in Wellington ought to be building on their many strengths, while at the same time working to address some of their deficits. This would actually rejuvenate local democracy," he says.
"And if the Government wants to look at efficiencies, it could do itself a favour by digging out the 2007 Shand Report into rates, which outlined 96 recommendations of best practice in local body finance.
"If implemented, they would greatly enhance the efficiency, economy and, most importantly, the effectiveness of all our local bodies - but successive Labour and National governments have, for whatever reason, chosen to ignore them."
Massey University Release (June 2012)