Council voting choices not clear cut

23:00, Jul 23 2013

How do we know whether the current folk we have elected are doing a good job - not as a whole "council" per se, but as individuals? To examine this question, let's have a brief look at how they get chosen for the job in the first place.

In any other setting, when a vacant job is available, advertisements are placed calling for candidates. Intending candidates put themselves forward and are assessed for their skills to do the job, references are checked, and the best person appointed to the role.

In the general elections for a central government, we get a lot of information about what the various political parties will do and how they will go about fulfilling their electoral mandate before the election. We know quite a bit about what the government we choose will be doing once we elect them.

The same cannot be said for local government. For our elected council members, this is not at all clear cut. Yes, they certainly put themselves forward for us to choose among by their advertising. But it isn't always so easy to determine what skills or experience they have for the role, nor what their past/current performance may have been like.

We are more than somewhat reliant on what they say. All of which is a bit like hiring someone without getting referees from their past workplaces and simply taking the person's word for it.

One recent ad on TV used a line that went something like "but, of course, I would say that" because the people saying it all worked for the company of the product in question. Political advertising should be taken with the same grain of salt, in my view - these people want us to vote for them, so of course they're only going to say good things about themselves.


You'll never hear, for example, an election advert that says: "Hi, I'm an empty bag of wind and will do nothing useful if elected." Interestingly, nor are you likely to hear an election slogan saying: "Vote for me and I will ensure your rates go up by a lot more than the rate of inflation every year."

Yet, actually, that is what has happened for the last decade, notwithstanding that what almost all candidates "promised" us in their election comments was exactly the opposite!

Our rates (in TDC and NCC) have continuously gone up by far more than the rate of inflation. As I pointed out in an earlier column, rates rises are always lower in election years; and this year is no different.

But why this year? Is it simply because of a looming election? Current elected folk will likely say "no" or "it's because we are financially responsible". But then, of course, they would say that.

So, how do we know how well the individual members are doing? What is their actual performance like? Over the next few months, they will all start telling us what a great job they personally have done (or will do).

In the last few weeks, there has been some reporting of attendance figures of elected members of both councils, which is a good thing. But using that as a measure of performance is like saying someone is doing a good job just because they turn up at work most days.

Attendance says nothing whatsoever about whether they are doing a good job or not. Let's face it, we all know people who we have worked with where the organisation we worked for might have been much better off if they hadn't turned up at all. Same with some people we elect.

Now, without a good mix of skills or experience across the range of council activities around the elected council table, nor even being a particularly good representation of our community, imagine how much harder it is to judge the actual performance of individual members. It is, in fact, impossible to judge under the current system.

Let me try an example. Every elected council has at least one person on it who states they are totally dead-set against rates rises. So, given that every year rates have gone up by far more than the rate of inflation, then how really successful is an elected person who is against rates rises?

Such a person would tell us they really are effective at looking after us because they do vote against rates rises every year. On the other hand, in spite of their supposedly amazing efforts on our behalf, the rates still keep going up. Would you want to keep employing someone who doesn't deliver the results they say they will? Election after election?

Sure, it is important to have someone taking that "no rises" stance, but surely the ultimate measure of their actual effectiveness is whether or not they can enrol and convince their colleague elected members not to put the rates up.

And if they can't effectively get the result they say they want (as is clearly demonstrated by continual rates rises over many years), then should we keep voting them in instead of trying a new, and hopefully much more successful, candidate(s)?

But this really is just one example. I only used it because it is the single most common theme in past election promises. It is an example that can be extended to any topic, not just rates rises.

Over the next few months, there will be quite a few folk vying to have us pick them for a job. Right now, we have no way of knowing how effective or successful they are individually. They will, just like in the ad, say how successful they have been of course. But in reality there is no way of knowing; none whatsoever.

Keith Marshall is a company director and the former Nelson City Council chief executive. Previously, he has owned Thrifty Rental Cars NZ, managed the last nationwide health reforms and participated in the NZ-China FTA negotiations.