Stephen Selwood: Council controlled means just that

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Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

The Auckland Council will set the agenda for council controlled organisations.

Every Aucklander has an interest in and needs to be part of the high level policy decision-making affecting local government services.

The recent Herald editorial was correct on this point, but surprisingly draws an unjustified conclusion that it will be the proposed seven council controlled organisations who will make these important policy decisions and determine priorities.

Surprising, firstly, because the term "council controlled" means exactly what it says - council controlled organisations.

The legislation establishing the new council sets out numerous accountability mechanisms with which these organisations must comply, including for an organisation to: ... give effect to the Auckland Council's policies and plans, including and especially the regional transport strategy and overall strategic direction for transport in Auckland which will remain with council.

Also to have its statement of intent agreed by the council and made public ... report regularly to the council; and ... have its performance monitored by the council's governance and monitoring unit.

Secondly, the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance clearly anticipated that Auckland Council's major commercial trading and infrastructure services would in future be undertaken through council controlled organisations.

The commission identified benefits from establishing services such as transport and water in these organisations rather than setting up departments.

They included achieving operating efficiencies, tax and financial benefits and empowering local communities while reducing the ratepayer burden.

Further, organisations would be large by New Zealand standards, the commission stressed the importance of the Auckland Council ensuring they are effectively managed and governed to the highest possible standard.

The commission considered that statement of intent should be agreed three yearly (matching the electoral cycle) between the Auckland Council and organisations and be subject to quarterly reporting and annual review.

The statement of intent should clearly set out the policy objectives, strategies, operating requirements, major capital expenditures, performance measures and targets (including financial targets), debt and equity structure, human resource management, and environmental policies.

In short, the process proposed by the commission and implied in the legislation anticipates a cascading, interdependent linkage between policy, governance and management culture set down by Auckland Council and implementation - in that order - by the council controlled organisations.

If the Auckland Council does the statement of intent setting process properly and transparently the outcome should be, as noted by the commission, "fit for purpose" regional controlled organisations that give effect to Auckland Council's policies and plans and achieve economies of scale and other benefits to the whole region.

I also note that the transition agency is recommending that organisations should take account of the views expressed by local boards as a requirement of the intent statement approved by the Auckland Council and has proposed a council committee chaired by the mayor to oversee organisations activities.

Our New Zealand council for Infrastructure Development supports both provisions.

To make the organisation even more transparently accountable we have recommended the establishment of a management board chaired by the mayor and comprising the chief executive of the Auckland Council and the CEOs and chairpersons of the seven controlled organisations.

The proposed board will have an important role to secure and maintain 'unity' within the overall Auckland Council structure in performing its services.

Both improved efficiency and local democracy are desirable outcomes from the governance reform process.

For ensuring improved local democratic accountability on what we have now, I am as sensitive as any Aucklander to the need for these council controlled organisations, the Auckland Council and local boards to work directly and collaboratively together.

Without the ability for the organisations to engage with Auckland's many communities and vested interest groups, Auckland's many deep-seated economic and social challenges are unlikely to be progressed.

If our politicians are smart, they will set a clear vision, policies and goals and be ready to pounce if performance is not forthcoming or projects not delivered on time or within budget.

This is an outcome that is obviously opposite to the Herald view that the executive mayor may not be able to deliver the platform on which they have been elected and that the Auckland Council will also have its hands tied.

In fact, it will be the mayor and council who sign off the statements of intent. It will be the elected politicians who will at the end of the day be accountable for setting the badly needed agenda for Auckland to be able to lift its game.

* Stephen Selwood is chief executive of the New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development.

- NZ Herald

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