It is cliché, but true, to say we live in extraordinary times. Befitting this the New Zealand Government is now driving several once-in-a-generation reforms. Among local communities they will leave little untouched in a familiar landscape, with changes, for example, already well underway in the health, education, local government, town planning and water sectors.
The processes behind the changes seem to always involve references to engagement, communication, consultation, partnership and community.
Despite this, people unhappy with reform push back with accusations precisely of lack of engagement and poor communication. While both sides are often genuine in their motivation, we usually then see shooting the messenger politics. The listening dries up, the barracking gets louder.
To be clear, I believe the reform programmes are necessary. The sectors referred to above need bold change to meet the profound societal, economic and technological shifts of today and the future.
I get concerned, however, when the shape of the debate seems to default to a focus on the wrong things. Calls for engagement, partnership and community give way to the familiar technocratic concerns of organisations, structures, legislation, efficiencies and money. More often than not, there’s a call for centralisation of some sort. Instead of real change, you get an impression of the deck chairs yet again being rearranged.
Government rightly asks us to reimagine the future (e.g. Future for Local Government). Government is also promoting the four well beings, in some cases using legislation such as the 2018 Local Government Act Amendment to advance objectives beyond the traditional economic efficiency lens to include social, natural and human capitals. These are all positive objectives. Yet we live in a time of decreasing trust in governments, institutions, corporates, especially big tech, media, information and traditional hierarchies.
To build trust and genuine engagement, should Government do some reimagining of its own approach to reform?
Imagine if reform was firmly values-based rather than process-based. This would also support the philosophies of the four well beings. What would that look like? Here are some principles that would apply.
- Focus first on building genuine understanding of the characteristics of culture, inclusiveness and leadership required to inspire change for better outcomes; the ‘engineering’ of organisational structures and so on comes later.
- Be driven by human connection, respecting the emotions associated with change and the criticality of genuine connection and authentic communication. This would be supported by policy formation and legal overhauls. Not the other way round.
- Show respect for and value the capability and connectedness of those closest to the points of delivery (including the business sector) and their lived experiences; seek real-time input, rather than residing in the familiar echo chambers of established hierarchies.
In his article entitled ‘Gliding On? Cardigans? No’ in BusinessDesk on 11th November, Sir Brian Roche lamented how he sometimes wished his private-sector colleagues could walk for a few days in the shoes of a senior leader in the public sector. How would they cope with the pressures?
Fair enough. There are many very talented and committed public sector leaders, doing great work in challenging circumstances.
However, that same challenge can be stood on its head: public sector leaders could also walk for a few days in the shoes of senior leaders of local governance and community leadership groups. How would they cope with pressures?
Both sides of Sir Brian’s thought experiment promote genuine problem solving.
As the Auditor General noted in his recent report entitled ‘Building a stronger public accountability system for New Zealanders’, “Public organisations should value their relationships with communities as much as their relationships with Ministers.”
Maybe the real outcome of reforms should be more constructive ongoing engagement between central government and local governance and related community groups?
Just as is often claimed at the outset, these groups might then continuously collaborate on, improve, invest in and modernise critical public services. They would keep up with societal progress and needs, rather than fall behind. Again.