Increasingly the media has been tossing and turning as it contemplates just how will/ should/could the Government lead this Country into new places. This week I want to consider some observations of how Government could change, and make the system a lot more open.
An elected rep is bombarded with well-meaning people offering all sorts of advice. Good and bad. The skill is to be able to discern which is which. One major problem is that politicians are booked up from dawn to dusk. When I left the Mayoralty, my team told me that they had measured my time for 3 months. I averaged between 90 and 120 hours per week with appointments. That doesn’t allow for the time when you are stopped and asked things as you walk down the road. As you stand having a beer at Warners. As you shop in the supermarket. Anywhere.
Public life is not fun if you do not have the right personality. If you value privacy, then don’t get involved. If you need to be always loved, then you are in the wrong game. If you want the media to write good things about what you are doing, forget it. Fuck up once and you are guaranteed to make the front page.
The challenge for anybody who is a politician is to make time to think. I didn’t; and it was a mistake.
However, it is essential that we support our political figures. They aren’t all lovely, and you don’t need to like them. A test would be do you like all those you work with?
The key challenge for us as a society is to insist on there being structures which allow politicians to be able to consider in depth new ideas. Politics is essentially about rationing. Rationing money, and time. It’s also about ideas. New ideas replacing old ideas. Old ideas being rediscovered. In order to change the way issues are rationed we must have safe places where we can sit with politicians and play with ideas. Change will never occur if these safe places don’t exist. Or change will only be promoted by small “in” groups, which don’t often promote anything far from the status quo.
When somebody is elected to office, they become the property of the bureaucracies which serve them. Their time is seldom their own. Their diaries are filled with appointments and meetings. The elected reps are also a big part of the problem. Too often they wallow in the detail. They often focus on what is essentially administrative. I always joked that the best meetings happened in the Council car park. Politics is about ideas; and deals.
Here’s a few items which as electors we need to consider, if we are to live out what Sam Johnson talked about a few weeks ago:
- When did public servants become servants of the Minister instead of to the public for Parliamentarians?
When I first became involved with Government Departments, they were filled with proud public servants whose purpose was to advise the Government of the day. Often these people drove me mad but, as a student activist, I got to view really senior public servants who had come up the ranks from teaching and were in the Department of Education to continue their commitment to teaching. They taught me a lot early in my life.
I would not say things were perfect. I remember when serving as CPIT’s accountant, the Department of Education ruling that computers were a “passing phase” and refusing to fund them. The Departments were often slow to change, something which has remained a modus operandi to this day.
However, Departments were expected to supply “free and frank” advice to the Government of the day. That’s supposedly what happens now. My observation is that advice is too often packaged in a manner acceptable to the Minister of the day. This is not good enough. It is definitely not healthy. A strong-willed Minister can then promote policy which may not even be in the public’s interest, but instead only in the interest of the political party in power.
- We have lost much institutional memory and inexperienced people are writing policy
I have been concerned hearing from people in many areas where they have been dealing with supposed policy advisors who have often no knowledge of what has happened before they joined that department. That applies equally in Local and Central Government. The myth of a “manager is a manager”, whatever their training, has resulted in massive institutional memory loss. I have observed people in very senior positions who aren’t trained in the area they are managing, making decisions which are just plain wrong. These people often promote staff under them who also don’t have any knowledge of what they are responsible for, and then the rot really sets in. The “we tried that 10 years ago and it didn’t work, let’s try it this way” type of thinking has often gone.
I was discussing the writing of a glowing reference to rid a public organisation of a person who is a problem with a mate recently. I wonder if this is the way that many Institutions rid themselves of somebody they didn’t like, but couldn’t get rid of? They just write a glowing reference about that person and they shift all the issues that person brings with them to another outfit to deal with. I have witnessed some dreadful examples of this in Local Government. This all adds to the essential element of institution memory, where an ability to add to what has transpired before, too often now being a rare element of decision making. When the person responsible for a decision has been moved on from another place with a glowing reference to get rid of them, their shortcomings follow them.
I well remember John Patterson being called in by MBIE after the earthquakes by a policy analyst from Head Office in Wellington. He was speaking about changes they were writing about building regulations. After a while John, after a lifetime serving as a builder, asked the guy when he last used a hammer. The response was this guy said he did not use a hammer. He wrote policy. To which John replied “I thought so, because you don’t know what you are talking about”.
At a forum on Community Housing, Campbell Roberts, from the Salvation Army, lamented that in negotiations with Government officials on housing every meeting the Community Housing reps had to remind the policy analysts present about what had gone before and what did and didn’t work in the past. The community reps had the institutional memory which was absent from the Government Departments.
- How can we create throughout the country ideas factories?
With modern communication tools it is possible for large groups to assist in the development of policy, and to foster new ideas and new ways of thinking. Many of us became adept at using Zoom during the pandemic to communicate with each other. In one of our Zoom sessions at the Tuesday Club we even had one attendee from Washington DC.
As a tool, software, like Zoom, will become even better at joining us together for proper conversations. We have to master this software. We learned from David Bennett just how powerful these programmes are during the lockdown. Policy making, should not be the preserve of a small number. We should all have the opportunity to influence ideas as they make their way from the minds of a few to the policy framework for the future.
A very good example of things changing for the better is the local discussion on what Greater Christchurch 2050 should look like. I was involved in the development of its predecessor framework, the Urban Development Strategy. We didn’t consult beyond the elected reps and the bureaucracies which supported us. The openness of the process being undertaken right now is a good start and augurs well for this process remaining open, and iterative.
One of the more inspiring people I met as Mayor was the Mayor of Curitiba, Jamie Lerner. This man, an architect and urban designer, was inspiring. He was a veritable mine of ideas. Mayors in his part of the world have a lot more power than Mayors do here. His closing of roads and building of light rail corridors is famous across the world.
I asked Jamie how he kept his creativity. His reply was something else. He had had a tree house built for him which overlooked part of his City. In the mornings he went there to think. He read and he sat with people who could assist his thinking. In the afternoon he said to me “then I do the work which bureaucrats think is important”.
I loved this idea and I went back to the then City Manager and said why didn’t we set up something like this where we went just to think. This idea was seen as yet another fanciful idea which the Mayor kept coming up with and would be forgotten sooner or later.
So, my equivalent was sitting in the Square every Friday, and anybody could come and see me. The executive resisted this as well. They hated these weekly sessions. They were unable to control who came to see me…
I was my own worst enemy when it came to time. I met with everybody and didn’t spend enough time thinking in quiet places.
Here’s a sample of the sort of thinking which came from this astounding leader:
During his first tenure as Mayor of Curitiba, Lerner created a recycling program bent on making trash valuable. Loosely translated as “Rubbish that is not Rubbish – Green Exchange,” the idea of the program was that trash and recyclable paper could be exchanged for tokens to use the public transport system, notebooks for students, or food. The exchange program gave low-income populations access to jobs downtown and higher quality meals and allowed students access to the educational resources they needed.
The 62 poorest neighborhoods of Curitiba alone have exchanged 11,000 tons of garbage for nearly one million bus tokens. This program has served as a perfect example of how to creatively use resources to help bring greater sustainability to a city, and greater opportunity to a city’s residents.
Here’s an article on Jamie Lerner. Somewhere, in a box somewhere, I have a photo of Jamie sitting in my Austin 7.
I wonder if we could get Jamie Lerner to speak to our City again as he reflects on his life?
- Are there ways that Parliament/Local Government could function better and be more responsive to feedback now that it’s the 21st Century?
The longer parties are in Government, or in Local Government (think Tim Shadbolt, Tauranga City Council), the more they become isolated from those of us who put them there. That’s why we need to have a new way of supplying feedback into the places of power.
Particularly those elected to Central Government get increasingly isolated from ordinary people. Their meetings are carefully orchestrated by the public servants who manage the lives of MP’s and Ministers.
What made me think about this was the discounting by the Prime Minister on the need for a financial assistance for those on low incomes before Christmas. Dylan Asafo, an Auckland University Law lecturer wrote in Spinoff:
The road to the transformative change Labour campaigned for is wide open like it has never been before.
However, in my opinion, it’s becoming more and more probable that the Prime Minister and her Labour leaders have never truly cared about achieving transformative change, and that the goal has really always been to acquire and maintain power.
It’s been said in many different ways that when we have power, especially almost unfettered power, that our true selves are revealed. Therefore, to call out the violence of “kindness” and “unity”, it’s more and important than ever that we follow AAAP’s lead in holding mirrors to the faces of our Prime Minister and our other “kind” leaders so that they can be confronted with the truth of who they are, or moreover, who they have become. We need to do this no matter how ‘aggressive’ we may look and how unpopular and unlikable it makes us.
Here’s the whole article: https://www.newsroom.co.nz/the-cruel-violence-of-kindness-and-unity
Bryce Edwards wrote this this week:
Is it true that the Government can’t afford to increase benefits? Not according to business journalist Bernard Hickey, whose must-read column this week argues that Ardern and Robertson seem determined to massively increase inequality by following outdated economic philosophies – see: Government should use printed money to increase benefits, which will be spent in the economy. He asks: “Is it more important that homeowners are $100b richer? Or that hundreds of thousands of children are left unnecessarily in poverty?”
Here’s Hickey’s main point: “It is bizarre that a Labour Government and a Reserve Bank that talk a big game on their social responsibilities and sustainability are choosing to pump up to $150b into increasing housing market valuations for the richest half of New Zealanders who own homes, but don’t think they can afford increasing benefits at a cost of $5.2b for the hundreds of thousands of kids and their parents living in poverty.” He points out that “economists as conservative as those at the OECD, the IMF and the World Bank are now begging Governments to do things differently by spending money on the poor and on infrastructure, rather than just pumping up asset prices to make the rich even richer.”
Hickey also refers to a report out this week with findings from the Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study. You can read the report here: Now we are eight: Life in middle childhood. Hickey sums up the inequality findings: “Nearly 40 per cent are living in cold, mouldy and damp homes. About a third are obese. About 20 per cent of the families surveyed did not have enough money to eat properly. Nearly 15 per cent of the eight-year-olds had already moved school twice, largely because of having to move from one rental property to the next.”
These are serious, committed New Zealanders. Speaking out for the voiceless. But their pleas appear to be falling on deaf ears. Because that is not what the Cabinet Ministers are receiving as advice.
It is possible for us as a small country to do things better as we all work to develop new ways of addressing complex issues. The elected reps need to change the way they work. They need to insist on it. We need to insist on it as well. We all need to be more engaged and involved in decision making