What are the critical factors determining good local governance? The recent amalgamation debate in Hawke’s Bay was certainly raised some issues, but the debate was narrow – focusing on the idea that bigger is better.
The logic of the Local Government Commission, central government and local proponents of amalgamation was that scale is the critical factor. The primary logic was that bigger would provide better coordination and presumed ‘efficiency’ of services; notwithstanding that ‘efficiency’ is highly subjective. I can much more ‘efficiently’ destroy a stream with a bulldozer than a shovel. Efficient for what? Efficient for whom?
The other logic was that we would get better quality representatives by selecting from a bigger talent pool. We could certainly do with an increase in quality, but we only need look to US politics to see that larger scale has resulted in money dictating our choice of representatives, not merit.
Concerns regarding a loss of local representation were dealt with in a ‘clip-on’ way. We’ll give them community boards, with some limited powers, to appease the dissenters.
Is scale the panacea? It is one of New Zealand’s obsessions, deeply entrenched in colonial thought. We use the logic of ‘produce more, cheaper’. And we do. We stepped voluntarily on to Willard Cochrane’s Technology Treadmill after WWII, and turned our land into a factory. Bulldozers and aerial topdressing increased production of bulk, real prices dropped, margins shrank, farmers got bigger or got out, ownership centralised, more technology gave temporary restraint, before the treadmill continued, downwards. But the hard logic is obviously persuasive, and in New Zealand at least, pervasive. The irony is that small & medium locally-owned farms and firms perform far better for the local society, economy and environment. But that strategic research is marginalised by the cult of the bigger machine.
This is what comes from thinking in ‘resources’ and machines. People are obedient cogs, measure quantity and ignore quality to suit the engineer and the accountant. Amalgamate and centralise in one region the once local meat and dairy processing cooperatives, merge the suppliers; focus on cost, not value, certainly not service.
Build the bigger ‘continuous process’ mill where the unit cost of processing is expected to diminish by increasing economies of scale. Reduce differentiation in the interests of the beast. Throw the high-value pruned log down the chipper to appease its appetite for bulk;
the organic certified and low somatic cell count milk into the common vat to favour commodity over the chance of anything special; favour the bland bulk beer plant over the batch-brewed boutique. And then we corporatise management structures and develop hierarchies to ensure that all the cogs play their discrete obedient roles in running the machine.
Kirkpatrick Sale wrote brilliantly about scale. He identified a number of negative effects of creating ever larger government organisations: a distention of rules as the ponderous beast spouted more protocols of obedience; built in contradictions because jealous silos don’t communicate; waste as work is overlooked or overdone; increased costs as more hierarchical layers are installed; inequity as only the well resourced gain admittance; and more corruptibility as the weighty and more powerful organisation is largely removed from public scrutiny, or from healthy internal dialogue and critique.
Then add a withered and centralised knowledge system, a focus on bland sameness of safe measures rather than reaching for the stars of excellence, less adaptability, less foresight, less community buy-in to decisions, and, with that, less effective delivery.
It is a curious observation on our age that we look inwards to the logic of the ‘hard’ definable numbers placed within a spreadsheet, and seldom outwards to the critical ‘soft’ cultural factors that underpin the good life and community: meaning, trust, initiative, ethics, quality, belonging, participation, diversity. Technocrats cannot see the culture for all their measured wheels.
In centralising and amalgamating, we could replace a committed people-centred organisation with a more command and control hierarchy, more especially if we promote the wrong people. Diminished are open engagement and dialogue of ideas both between staff and with the community, esprit de corps, a sense of belonging and purpose, as well as innovation and adaptability. And we become more distant from the community where so much wisdom and knowing resides. That is not a thriving place for ideas and a focus on goals and an ever-shifting world.
Some people like it that way. The machine has a tempting mystique of certainty and control, far more predictable than raising a child. If you like marching in step there is comfort, and if you are up the hierarchy, there is status. Tyranny and totalitarianism is far more ‘efficient’ in some senses than democracy. Elections are costly. Local representation costs more. Consultation is costly. Listening to people takes time.
Our real ever-changing adaptive world is not, however, a predictable machine, and treating it so will not change that fact. What it will do is create even more uncertainty and dull responses, because we will neither be looking for surprise, nor with the local sense and adaptability to act.
‘Bigger is better’ is a myth. We need to replace our obsession with machines and scale. It is culture that is far more determining of outcome; not just the culture within organisations, but also the culture of our
communities and of our representatives. One supports the other. If the policymakers and CEOs think hierarchically and mechanically, then they will create the mechanical monsters of their minds. And then the community will disengage and lose its own sense of democracy, responsibility and participation. Build democracy and decentralisation, not autocracy and hierarchy.
Scale alone will never deliver us a better local government. A culture that welcomes discussion, new ideas, cooperation and initiative is far more critical.
Chris Perley has a background in primary sector and regional strategy, policy, research, and operational management across forestry, agriculture, community, economy and the environment.