In the modern world, where PR and spin abound, how do citizens assess what is really happening? We can no longer rely on what we are being told.
Instead, we have to look behind the carefully controlled messages we are constantly receiving, to see what is actually being achieved. We need to look at outcomes and results.
So what does this approach tell us about Auckland Council, and its Council Controlled Organisations (CCOs), approaching 12 years after amalgamation?
Ports of Auckland is an unsuccessful operation. Hundreds of millions of dollars of commercial value passed to Ports of Tauranga, as Auckland port has underperformed.
Watercare has failed at critical moments in 2020, when water restrictions were imposed. It has hiked water costs considerably since the Super City formation. But it does seem to be investing significantly in new water infrastructure. It is now, perhaps, the best CCO.
Auckland Transport (AT) is unbalanced (to the point of extreme) in preference for public transport and cycleways over private cars.
Latest budgets have AT spending 45.4 per cent of total council capex (capital expenditure) over 2022/25 years; and 35.5 per cent of opex (operating expenditure) in 2022/23 year. Since Covid, passengers and revenue on AT services have fallen dramatically.
AT roadworks and plans to mall Queen St helped destroy CBD retail. AT cycleways are very underused. The 30km/h speed limits are unnecessary and unacceptable. Buses ran empty throughout Covid lockdowns. Regional fuel tax has been poorly utilised. AT
is a particularly unsuccessful CCO.
Central Rail Link (CRL) is a 50/50 council and central government initiative- New Zealand's largest infrastructure project. Its estimated cost was $2.5 billion in April 2016, increased to $4.42 billion (with additional works included) in April 2019.
Subsequent CRL reports don't discuss cost overruns or delays. The council's 2021/31 budget assesses "high" risk of CRL cost increases. There's real doubt projected passenger usage will occur and it's uncertain what percentage of operating costs the council will ultimately bear. The CRL is a significant future financial threat.
Auckland Unlimited has been unsuccessful in running a film studio, and in rationalising stadiums across the city. There is still no Auckland cricket ground.
Panuku sold the former council building in Aotea Square for a price so low the transaction was investigated for possible impropriety.
In politics, the Labour Party operates within the Super City, standing candidates under the Labour banner in left-leaning areas, and as independents in "blue" wards. The National Party undertakes no party political role in Auckland.
For reasons outside council control, it is left-dominated when it would benefit if it straddled the political centre line.
Staff numbers in fulltime equivalents (FTEs) dropped by 3.4 per cent on amalgamation
with no significant savings (apparently Super City jobs paid more, offsetting reduced staff numbers).
Since amalgamation, increases in staff numbers (after Covid reductions) have tracked with population growth. So there have been no material staff savings from amalgamation.
At June 30, 2021, Auckland Council employed 6262 FTEs, and CCOs employed 4667 (total 10,929) FTE staff.
Council finances reached their debt limit by June 2019. Then Covid squeezed revenues, forcing the council to temporarily increase its debt ceiling, and defer fully funding depreciation.
However, improved finances to June 2021 kept debt within original limits. The finances
remain very tight, before any CRL overruns. The 2021/2031 budget looks optimistic and unattainable.
Operations are arguably the greatest failing of the Super City. Central government (with institutional history and a specialist civil service), was unable successfully to oversee large bureaucracies.
Former central government ministries (Works, Post Office, Electricity, etc) now operate as small advisory groups, with major government activity contracted out; or the former ministries converted to SOEs, and now run as corporates.
It was arguably a deficiency in designing the Super City to expect local councillors to successfully manage and control a bureaucracy of 6262 council staff and 10,929 group staff, when central government consistently failed similar tasks.
Auckland Council and CCO staff can appear secretive; politicised; inadequately controlled and managed; and driving their own agendas, particularly in transport and planning.
Consultation is often window-dressing, which fails to elicit what public wants; after which officer-agendas are still pursued.
There is inadequate cost control. Comparing two identical projects in Auckland and Rotorua, the Auckland cost was six times higher.
This examination of outcomes and results achieved by the Super City and its CCOs since amalgamation suggests Auckland Council is indeed a failed experiment. Only populace/voter apathy towards local government has not forced change earlier.
This year's 2022 local elections may see agitation to improve the existing position.
A significant CRL cost overrun or other extreme budget pressures may force change, such as the sale of the majority of port operations, and more disciplined cost control. Three Waters, if implemented, will supersede Watercare.
Drivers of change could be on the horizon.
• David Schnauer is an economist, retired lawyer and the author of Covid, Catalyst for Change.