Submission fatigue

Yesterday, the Dunedin City Council settled in for what promises to be a long week.

It has 818 submissions to its annual plan to consider, including 240 from people wishing to speak to them.

Those submissions range from climate change, to cycleways, to city debt, social housing, parking, energy efficiency, public toilets and, of course, the Awatea St stadium, and proposed Harrop St extension to the town hall.

The DCC is not alone in facing this deluge.

The Otago Regional Council also might be said to be "drowning in democracy" with one councillor, Stephen Woodhead, saying the ORC had "submissions for Africa" out for consultation.

Submissions to the ORC's draft long-term council community plan - in which the council outlines what it intends to do and how it should be funded - closed last Friday and number 223.

In addition, there are several other documents on which the council is seeking public comment: for example, the Regional Transport Plan, proposed changes to wetland provisions, and the second round of consultation on minimum flows and water allocation.

Another councillor suggested there were so many requests for input from the community that some people could end up suffering "submission fatigue".

It could be said involvement at this level is democracy in action, the appropriate expression of the will and interests of a committed community.

And there is much to be said in favour of such an interpretation.

Councils and councillors are elected to draw up and shepherd through due process projects generally held to be in the interests of the community.

They will rely on the advice of council staff and consultants as to the best way to approach an issue or problem, but involvement of the populace allows concerns to be aired or local knowledge to come to the fore - in a healthy manifestation of participatory democracy.

Some projects will prove to be especially controversial and attract large numbers of submissions: even though the contract to build the Awatea St stadium has been signed, 114 of the 240 submitters to the DCC indicating their wish to be heard have signalled their opposition to the project; other issues will attract only a few, but numerical weight need not signal superior relevance, and it is to be hoped submissions are treated on their merits, regardless of the scale of the matter to which they pertain.

It might also be said, however, the invitation to submit and consult on public initiatives is now so thoroughly ingrained into the culture of government - exactingly seeded and tended through the legislative cultivation of, for example, the Local Government Act and the Resource Management Act - the suspicion arises that there now exists a psyche unable to act unless massaged by the express approval of the consultation process.

While the consult-and-submit industry is to be applauded for its democratic reach, it is also to be closely examined for signs of bureaucratic inertia and, indeed, submission fatigue.

The question also arises as to how, in past generations, our elected officials ever managed.

Surely they did not simply make the decisions they were elected to make and get on with the job?There have been many and varied objections to the RMA, some pointing to the Act's vulnerability to vexatious interventions.

With some force, those in this camp will point to the history of the Pak'n Save supermarket on Auckland's North Shore, opened this weekend but held up some 20-odd years through numerous, costly court processes by the "submissions" of its major competitor.

Equally, there are those who would wish that any changes to the Act should not by reason of cost alone silence the genuine "small" voices of opposition.

For its part, the ORC is concerned that proposed amendments to the RMA will only "add complexity, introduce uncertainty and increase cost".

This view was proposed by the council in its submission last week to a select committee hearing on the Resource Management (simplifying and streamlining) Amendment Bill 2009.

Achieving an effective balance between an involved community and an overburdened, paper-heavy, and sometimes off-point, or merely cantankerous, submissions culture is a growing challenge to modern and efficient government.

There are important issues of delay and escalation of cost to be considered.

It is critical to confidence in local government that citizens have a meaningful voice - and thus that those submitters wishing to be heard by the DCC have their input officially registered.

But it is also incumbent on our legislators to address the notion that it is not only citizens who may be beginning to suffer from submission fatigue, but also those bodies and individuals, charged with government, who are increasingly diverted and burdened by the sheer demands of consultation.

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