Effective council service more important than staff numbers

Hilary Calvert
Hilary Calvert
It's not how many staff our councils employ but what the staff are doing.

The DCC has budgeted to employ an extra 41.1 staff, and the Long Term Plan last year provided for 29 extra staff.

Whether either of these proposals is a good plan depends on what they have been employed to do and whether employing them is the best way to do it.

It may be smart to employ more staff if we are getting behind in providing services such as building permits.

And we are told that many of the new staff positions will save money by reducing contractors and having more of our own staff. There is no detail around this but these new staff positions would be in the smart pile if they really do save money.

We would also expect to see more staff employed in areas where councils have been getting behind on their statutory duties, such as consenting processes, through lack of staff.

However in the "please explain category" would be when more staff are asked for to deliver services properly without good reason, such as seems to be the case with increased number of people at the DCC in the property area, where there does not appear to have been either an increase in service or a signalled lack of maintenance.

And in the "crazy as" category would be such as increasing parking wardens. This is especially egregious when parking is so difficult around town at the moment, for all except councillors with their free parks. We would expect to wait until we get rid of most of the cones before we employ even more parking police. (This may take some time, since there seem to be plans afoot to destroy access to main street retail with the central city upgrade proposed to start shortly).

Also in the "crazy as" category seems to be the ORC having 182 full time staff, with 25 full time staff positions in communications and publicity. Calling these staff the Stakeholder Engagement Team in no way explains why somewhere around 15% of its staff are spending their days trying to tell us what the the rest are doing.

Some increased staff in the DCC look like they might be in management of projects. On the one hand this could be good news, in that we might see better specifications for projects and better monitoring of them to get the outcomes we want. But it might have been a better plan to have the right people with the skills to understand what is required and to supervise the jobs more thoroughly in the first place. More staff will not necessarily sort this out.

Anecdotally, the Greater London Council has fewer people working for it than we do. This must be all to do with contracting out work. In the past we have been weak in the skills required to specify and monitor projects: Greater London must have cracked what is required to do this well.

What can make contracting out work a good idea is that it requires the discipline of actually being very clear about what it is you want to be done and monitoring the work against the contract.

When work is done in-house there never seems to be any time when this discipline is at work. Instead of deciding what is required, and then costing the proposal for approval, a budget is approved by councillors and only then does anyone think of what might be done with the money and how many staff would be required. This seems to be how the central city upgrade is happening.

Apparently the long term plan for the DCC last year included six extra staff in roading/footpaths for "capacity issues", 3.9 staff in aquatic services to do with a "roster correction" and an increase of 10 in property maintenance to "current service level requirements". These explanations get us nowhere.

At the end of the day the number of staff is a smokescreen covering whether we are receiving the most efficient and cost-effective delivery of council services.

We are offered statistics about increasing staff numbers as if that provides a better service.

We rarely see any evidence that this is the case. And in some areas there seems no connection between staff employed and any activities of either the DCC or the ORC.

Maybe if councils concentrated more on how to provide better services and less about staff numbers and how to spin stories about why the services are actually fine, they would have time to think about whether our rates are spent wisely. - hcalvert@xtra.co.nz

 - Hilary Calvert is a former lawyer, politician and city councillor.


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