Consultation is key to nobody listening

Poplar trees covered in hoar frost near St Bathans last year. PHOTO: SHANNON THOMSON
Poplar trees covered in hoar frost near St Bathans last year. PHOTO: SHANNON THOMSON
Consultation by local councils and government is now an expensive waste of time and money.

We are asked for our views when no-one will take any notice of what we say. Staff go ahead without asking for feedback when we should have our say. We are asked for feedback about activities which are merely administrative.

The whole process would be better off being shelved along with other policies we can’t afford and which are adding no benefit.

An example of not taking a blind bit of notice of our feedback is the Geographic Naming Board, which decides what the official name of various places will be.

It has a policy which favours changing Māori words to reflect their original meanings and references. When the board supports a proposal for a name change, they then put the proposal out for consultation.

If a proposal comes in to change the name of the Maniototo to the Māniatoto, the board will establish to its satisfaction whether or not it is properly named Maniatoto according to its Māori origins.

It will not matter whether 90% of the locals want their name to stay with its current spelling: the policy of correcting names will prevail.

If the board is going to do something anyway it would be much better not to waste time and effort engaging with a pretend consultation.

Consultation is not asked for when we should have our say since the decision is a political one.

When you hear in reports from staff to councillors that widespread consultation has already been undertaken with stakeholders, what has actually happened is that staff from one department or organisation have talked to staff from other places.

None of these staff have been elected, and the proposals discussed have not been raised by elected members. Often the "stakeholders" are not even named.

Whatever is not supported by staff does not necessarily get presented to elected members.

And when the report proposes actions and "further" consultation in the community, options which are not supported by the stakeholder/staff will often not appear.

At this point staff become the decision-makers on issues which should be for the community and their elected representatives to decide. We have had an entire consultation process around playgrounds in Dunedin with no understanding that the city was about to spend $600,000 on a new seesaw in George St.

Conversely, consultation is requested when staff should be carrying out what are administrative tasks.

For example the Dunedin City Council staff decided to put increased control of fencing into its district plan. The question posed for consultation was around what these rules should be, not the prior and more fundamental question of whether any new rules should be put in place at all.

Consultation is a waste of time when it is about the how something should be done, not whether it should be done.

Consultation is also not worth doing when it is only about increasing spending.

When we are asked to get involved in submissions around council annual plans we get to comment on changes to what is currently done. We are told that if we don’t want to pay mouth-watering rates increases we will have a reduction in services.

If councillors ask whether there is any way the rates could be less they are told that of course you could not have the Otago Rescue Helicopter or some other popular service.

No-one as part of this consultation process gives options which include what could be done if we decided to reduce expenditure, which is what we all do in our private lives with our own money.

If mortgage interest rates go up, and we have less money to spare, we will look at whether we actually need some of the items we are currently spending money on.

We might choose to reduce the frequency of some of our spending, or cancel it entirely.

Not so councils. If you look at consultation documents for annual plan spending there is never any suggestion of reducing any spending on any activities.

Not only can councils never think of any cost cutting involving doing less, but the only suggestion the Central Otago District Mayor could think of for those worried about paying their rates was for them to mortgage their homes to pay for whatever the council decided they had to pay.

Consultation as done by councils comes at a high price. The costs of pretending to take into account community views as part of local democracy costs us dearly both through the costs charged to us by councils and also directly in the costs to us personally of engaging in the process.

This is not the fault of staff: they are following templates and commenting when councils ask them to comment.

It would be interesting if we heard what the costs of consultation are and the only thing we were asked was whether we would prefer lower rates than pseudo consultation.

Councillors are responsible at the end of the day. But then they only comment on what their council papers ask for comments on.

 - Hilary Calvert is a former Otago regional councillor, MP and Dunedin city councillor.