Are you asking these 3 challenging questions of your governance?

Command and control is the standard governance model in New Zealand and most of the world today.

You have an appointed governance group - whether that’s your Ministers, Governance Board or Board of Directors. Their job is to make decisions about your organisation’s future. They take that responsibility very seriously. But for the most part they make those decisions behind closed doors.

Sure, they might distribute the minutes or explain their rationale on the 6’oclock news. Or perhaps they’ll ask for feedback on the options they’ve developed. And they’re accountable through elections, votes, AGMs and Annual Reports, right?

But people are coming to expect more involvement in the governance of their organisations and institutions.

This raises its own tricky question.

How does your governance involve people in decision-making without challenging or undermining their own power structure? Is that even possible?

If you’re a council or central government organisation just starting this journey, you have many options that don’t require a wholesale handover of power to communities. Advisory panels. Citizen juries. Neighbourhood committees. Community resource hubs. Participatory budgeting. Neighbourhood planning. To name a few.

While these involve the community much more deeply, they still allow councils and central government organisations to retain final decision-making power.

But let’s shift our attention back to governance, as that’s what this article is about. And why is that so crucial? Because your organisation will not make any traction with community engagement or empowerment without buy-in from the people steering the ship.

3 Questions You Can Ask Your Governance To Understand Their Appetite for Engagement

Before implementing engagement or power-sharing strategies, we believe you need to ask three key questions of your governance first.  You need to understand their “appetite for engagement”. 

 1. What’s your appetite for localism?

To what extent does your governance believe that decisions should as a general rule be made at a local level by local people?

Does your governance believe public services should be delivered locally first and foremost…? With the overflows 'bumped up’ to the city, regional or national level…?

In New Zealand, the statistics would suggest not. New Zealand is one of the most fiscally centralised countries in the OECD.

88% of our public money is allocated by central government. The OECD average is 46%!

See  LGNZ’s Project Localism page  for more information.

See LGNZ’s Project Localism page for more information.

You might have heard about the Localism Project being promoted by Local Government NZ and the New Zealand Initiative. They believe our highly-centralised system creates some significant problems:

  • increased risk by 'putting all our policy eggs in one basket'

  • national organisations ignore the different needs of different communities

  • 'one-size-fits all solutions' to complex problems are prioritised even when the evidence shows they are less effective than local solutions

  • communities “learn helplessness” and wait for central government to solve their problems

  • central government politicians are overwhelmed with work, with voters having unrealistic expectations about what they can achieve

  • community innovation is stifled.

So what happens when your governance changes to a mindset of localism?

They start by asking “how can we deliver locally?” not “should we deliver locally?” Only once they’ve decided that local service delivery is not appropriate do they investigate other options.

If your governance have a high appetite for localism, you willingly explore alternative service delivery methods and alternative funding methods. And you will be relaxed that in some areas a service will be run by a community group and in other areas publicly funded - because the variation reflects local preferences.

The searching question of governance is whether they are happy to design the model of decision-making and service delivery with local communities. This means that what can't be delivered practicably at that community level is delegated up by agreement. It also means that at the community level in future these decisions can be reviewed if the capabilities of local communities change.

2. What’s your appetite for power-sharing?

Are your citizens asking for more input or are they seeking more power at a local level?  How willing are you to share power? 

A community meeting in Raglan attended by one of our Directors, David Hammond. The community there is asking for more involvement in decisions.

A community meeting in Raglan attended by one of our Directors, David Hammond. The community there is asking for more involvement in decisions.

If citizens simply want more of a say then it’s reasonable for your organisation to explore more citizen engagement or participatory methods.

If, however, citizens are demanding you share power you need to investigate governance and management restructures. This involves a more fundamental shift in how your organisation organises itself in order to involve citizens more closely in your everyday mahi.

Sound confusing? You can read more about the balance of power-sharing in our post on Messy Democracy.

3. What’s your appetite for elected-accountability?

How important is it that decisions about resources, services and funding are made by democratically elected people who are accountable through elections? 

“You can’t fix stupid, but you can vote it out.” (Image via Unsplash.)   When is elected-accountability essential and when is there a better way of achieving outcomes for communities?

“You can’t fix stupid, but you can vote it out.” (Image via Unsplash.)

When is elected-accountability essential and when is there a better way of achieving outcomes for communities?

This question is crucial because it dictates what your organisation will do with input from citizens.

Let’s imagine you work in a local council that’s deciding who should make decisions about funding of community groups. You have a pot of $100,000 to distribute to community groups every year.

That’s exactly what’s happened here in Nelson City where we’re based.

Previously, the elected officials have made the decisions about these small funding applications. We’re talking about applications for $500 or $5,000 - tiny amounts of money in the scheme of public spending. So you’ve had elected officials being well paid to figure out which community groups should receive funding.

Recently the council made the decision to devolve this power to a non-elected community panel. The Council choses four people from the community and supports them to make these decisions.

This is a worthy first step towards localism. And obviously it requires the council to be satisfied that elected-accountability is not required in this instance. You might be thinking… “That’s fine but what about for much larger decisions?”

And that’s why your governance needs to understand their appetite for elected-accountability.

If elected-accountability is important to your organisation and people, then you cannot entertain decisions about service-levels or resources being made by non-elected people.

How your governance answers this question will determine whether they would support regional infrastructure companies, the transfer of public assets to companies, or the use of Advisory Panels for anything more than simply... advice.

If your organisation is going to full delegate a decision to the community, then why would they not expect those people to be elected and accountable to the people? But if your elected governance retains control over that decision-making and resources then a non-elected group is appropriate.

What other questions have you found useful?

We would love to hear your feedback in the comments below or via email. We understand community engagement is just one of the many balls governance must juggle. Often their minds are full with questions of finance, risk and audit. So how have you helped them to turn their mind to the value of community engagement and empowerment?


Engagement isn’t black and white

As this article shows, it’s never as simple as implementing engagement as a one-off approach for a single project. You’ll doom your project team to failure unless their engagement is supported by leadership and governance.

If your organisation is thinking about how to involve citizens, residents, stakeholders or communities more in decision-making and service delivery - we can help you shift your whole organisation, not just your project team.

With a fixed-price Engagement Audit, we can work with your governance and leadership to understand the key shifts your organisation needs to make to become more engaging - and as a result, more effective.