After serving 2 Terms (6 years) in Local Government NZ I have learned a few tricks and traps that might help aspiring candidates.
Is Local Government The Right Choice For Me?
Before we delve into the murky world of politics, let us ask the initial question. "Should I stand for Council?"
The answer is going to be different for everyone and will even be different at different times in your life.
First things to consider:
- Do I have the time to invest?
- Is the remuneration sufficient in my situation?
- Am I prepared for rejection?
- What is my why?
Do I have the time to invest?
Never under estimate the time involvement!
Councillors are paid a set fee per month and every time you put your hand up to be involved in a working group or to sit on an extra committee is time out of your life for no extra pay. You can do little or you can do a lot for the same reward. However, there is an expectation from the community that elected you to be aware of (some being of the opinion that they own you because they "pay your wages").
This is also not a nine to five commitment. Depending on the Council you wish to stand for, you may find that you involved in many evening meetings of various community groups and Council consultation meetings. This is certainly an area that I underestimated going into the job.
It also helps if you are a speed reader for the thousands of pages of agenda that you will likely be expected to wade through.
However, every cloud has a silver lining, and with this job there is the freedom that comes with being a independent contractor. You do not have to get permission before taking a day off, and most Councillors are not involved in meetings every day of the week.
Do you have a family, or a family that is prepared to sacrifice that time with you?
Is the remuneration sufficient in my situation?
Sadly, one of the reasons that many good candidates do not put their name forward is because the pay provided is not sufficient to meet their needs.
A Councillor receives a monthly pay (yes, you have to wait a month between pay packets) that is allocated from a pool set by the Government for each Council. Each Council is free to divide that pool as they see fit between Councillors, Committee Chairs, and Deputy Mayor. The Mayor's wages are set by the Government.
As already stated, the pay is not necessarily reflective of the workload that you may choose to adopt. It is also most certainly not wage that is reflective of other industry management roles nor even of the Council staff remuneration. Each Council publishes the figures that are paid to its elected members so you can easily find out the rate of pay.
On the plus side, travel reimbursement and meals are usually part of the package.
You will have to decide if you are able to meet your needs with the return on offer.
Am I prepared for rejection?
This, again, is one of those personal questions that only you can answer.
In the first instance, you may face rejection if you stand and are not elected. However, if you are elected you will find that you are on the receiving end of a lot more rejection.
One of the delightful aspects to Local Government is that many of the decisions you make will upset fifty percent of the community (on a good day, and more on another day) and if you stay on the Council it is a fair assumption that sooner or later everyone will be on the receiving end of a decision that they didn't agree with. And to make matters worse the staff are making many other decisions that you don't know about until a member of the community is upset.
Remember that these upset people are the people you meet every time you venture outside your door, at schools, in the supermarket, and meeting with family and friends.You never leave work at home or in the office. Yes, it invades your home too as upset people track you down. Very rarely is it a happy ratepayer contacting you to tell you a good news story.
What is my why?
It is a good idea to honestly establish your motivation for standing for Local Government before putting your name forward.
If you are standing expecting to change the world then you will probably not enjoy your time on Council.The Council is a very large ship with many working parts (and staff) and changing direction is not something easily achieved. There are annual plans and ten year plans and strategies and policies all designed to keep the ship sailing on a set course.
This is not to say that you cannot change direction, but you have to know how and when to pull the levers. You also have to have enough friends around the table with like mindset.
If you have a specific agenda that you are intending to push you will find yourself equally frustrated if you cannot enough other elected members on board. This is definitely a relationship game. You can have all the best rationale and practicality, but if someone else is pushing a different barrow, and they have more friends, then logic will lose every time.
When your motivation is self-serving you should be prepared to be publicly exposed and critiqued. There are always people watching and questioning.
When your motivation is purely altruistic there will always be a frustration of the amount you are able to achieve - or not achieve.
Is Local Government still the right career choice for you?
How To Make A Difference In Local Government
Politics is a social game.
As already mentioned it takes more than a good idea to make a difference. You will have to form connections with other elected members around the Council table.
It is always a good idea to socialize your ideas with other members before springing them in a Council meeting. This gives other members a chance to digest your proposal and ask questions. If you can take more than 50% of the Council members on the journey with you then you will achieve a lot more. I have witnessed numerous motions die for lack of a seconder, and many many more over-ruled by the majority.
Politics is a long game.
Another challenge faced by new Councillors (and slow learners) is understanding the process to get your changes on the agenda.
Every time you try and change the direction of the Council ship you will be faced with a plethora of objections from the staff about why it can not be done: there will have to be consultations, there is no money in the budget, you risk reputational damage to the Council and on and on it goes.
The time to bring about any kind of major change is during the setting of the Long Term Plan (LTP) / Ten Year Plan that each elected Council gets to revisit once per term. Although the LTP is a ten year plan it is over-hauled every three years and each year there is an annual sign off of how Council is tracking against the LTP.
If you do not get your wishes outlined in the LTP update, with an associated budget attached, it is very hard to bring about change in the intervening years.
Another thing to be mindful of are the workshops held prior to setting the plan. Although they may seem innocuous to the untrained eye, what is actually happening during these meeting is that you are giving staff "a steer." This "steer" is a license for staff to go away and work on a topic for months before you see it again. At the point at which it reappears before the Council the plan has often had a lot of money invested or the time lapse has been so great that there is no longer time to make alterations before consultations (or sign off). The Council is bound by statutory time frames you will hear.
Remember that as a Councillor you are (often) a short term position holder. Most Councillors serve only a limited number of terms - either by way of the election process or because the system spews them out in frustration. Staff, on the other hand, are life members (especially those that churn to the top).
Politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.
- Charles de Gaulle
If you have not seen the British comedy series Yes Minister, I highly recommend viewing this prior to standing as it is sadly accurate as to the inner workings of the Local Government machine as well.
Steps To Making A Difference.
- Promote your agenda early, do not wait until the Long Term Plan is set or near set before moving changes.
- Take friends with you on the journey. Numbers of raised hands are all that count when decisions are made.
Understanding Local Government
One of the major misconceptions is what exactly elected Local Government officials are responsible for.
Here in New Zealand a local Council, in most cases, are at the bottom of the governance food chain with a Regional Council above them and a Central Government above them again. In some cases, the local Council and Regional Council come under the same umbrella in the form of a District Council.
Many of the local Ratepayers have no comprehension of which regulations and services are the responsibility of Central Government verses those where the Local Government has autonomy. For example, State Highways that run through a district are the sole responsibility of Central Government. Although, the local authority administers the Building Code, the code itself is set by Central Government.
I have seen many times in online forums of our Council being blamed for areas of Government jurisdiction and even issues that the responsibility of a neighboring Council. You can spend considerable time correcting misconception.
Another misconception that I see a lot is around red tape. When I stood for council I thought that the bureaucratic red tape was the bane of society and everyone wanted it gone and a return to the good old days of significantly more freedom. However, I quickly came to learn that this is a fallacy.
We are drowning in red tape because people want more of it, lots more of it. They don't want it for "me" but they do want it for "my neighbor." They want increased speed reductions for everyone traveling passed their house and community. They want more regulations about their neighbor's barking dog. They don't want people lighting fires. They don't want loud music or machinery next door. They don't people building structures in the neighborhood that they haven't first approved. The list is endless and as the Baby Boomers are retiring in greater numbers they have nothing better to do than complain about everyone and everything around them (an obvious blanket statement, but if you doubt the validity pop along to a local community association meeting).
Another misconception is that elected officials are seeing and approving every thing that goes on in Council. You will quickly learn that 95% of all the business of a council is done by staff and apart from amalgamated reports and statistics elected officials have no idea what is going on until someone complains to you about the actions of staff. Large subdivisions can be put through Council without a murmur if they are working within the confines of the legislative frame work. Staff with delegated responsibility can sign off all manner of things without the knowledge of elected officials.
You also have to be aware of staff with agendas within Local Government. You will likely see reports coming to Council that will use the results of surveys or consultations to justify a point of view. If you lift the lid on these surveys and consultations, you will often discover that the response rate is in the dozens (or less). And yet, whole council policies are based around the responses of a handful of the members of the community - usually names that are well familiar at pushing a particular barrow. These pet projects and policies are being driven along by staff members and some Councillors who have this as their hobby horse.
The system is completely warped and only succeeds because the vast majority of people have little to no interest in what the Council is doing - until such time as it directly impacts them, and by the time they discover the impact it is too usually too late to effect any change. Most people are just too busy raising a family, working two jobs just to survive, or involved in their own passion projects to be following the assertions of Local Government. This ambivalence is further encouraged by the overly complicated and excessively wordy nature of the world that these staff create around themselves to help justify their job - or the jobs of those who sit above them in all levels of Government.
Those well meaning individuals who enter Local Government to make a difference without understanding the nature of the machine get chewed up and spat by the system long before they see any fruit from their brave actions.
Do your homework before standing for Local Government, or at least once you have been elected, so that you understand how to work the system the best that you can. Otherwise you will be frustrated out office in no time.
Get Your Nominations In For Local Government
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2022 Idus Martiae