How does council work?

Councils play a broad range of local roles, from services undertaken on behalf of the community itself, to most regulatory services undertaken on behalf of central government.

Cities and districts have the widest range of responsibilities, which include:

  • infrastructure services, such as waste water, storm water and drinking water (councils own assets worth more than $120 billion)
  • local roads (councils own 87 per cent of all roads)
  • town planning and resource management
  • local regulatory services, such as building consenting, dog control and liquor licensing (councils undertake more than 30 separate regulatory functions)
  • parks, recreation and cultural facilities
  • libraries and museums
  • cemeteries
  • community amenities
  • economic development (councils spend more than $250 million per annum on economic development)
  • tourist promotion
  • local and regional leadership and advocacy.

Functions may vary from place to place as activities can be transferred between territorial and regional councils, and many councils have established joint service delivery arrangements.

How councils operate

Each district, city or regional council has an elected council or governing body which is ultimately responsible for the performance of the local authority. In districts or cities, the governing body will be led by a mayor who is directly elected by all eligible citizens within the area.

Councils employ a chief executive who then employs all remaining staff, on behalf of the council. The role of the chief executive and their staff is to provide advice to the council and implement its decisions.

Chief executives are employed on five year contracts that can be extended by a further two years. Each council is required to negotiate an annual performance agreement with their chief executive.

Most decisions are made in formally constituted hui or under delegation by staff, committees, local boards or community boards.

Delegating decisions is a way of managing the workload and ensuring that decisions are made as close as possible to the people affected by those decisions.

Making decisions

As an elected member you will be responsible for making decisions, sometimes involving very large amounts of public money, including debt. The local government sector, as a whole, spends more than $8 billion annually, so it is very important that decisions are based on accurate information and good advice. Elected members need to ask the right questions to ensure resources are used well and prudently. Poor investments and badly supervised projects can damage local economic development.

The way in which councils make decisions is subject to a number of rules and regulations set out in the LGA 2002 and other statutes.

Some critical ones are:

  • decision-makers must be informed by the views of those affected by the decision;
  • decision-makers must consider reasonable practicable options;
  • decisions must be made in public unless there are specific grounds for excluding the public; and
  • decision-making processes must acknowledge the diverse needs of the community.

Elected members have little authority by themselves. It is only when acting together with your colleagues that you can implement policies and make a difference. To be effective you need the support of the majority of your fellow elected members.

Being transparent

Local government works well because it is open and transparent. This is one of the fundamental values of good government and both the Local Government Official Information Act 1987 (LGOIMA) and the Ombudsmen Act 1975 apply to councils. This means that all business, except when matters of personal or commercial sensitivity are concerned, must be conducted in public. It also means that all information, including information held by elected members in their council role, is also public information.

The public is entitled to attend meetings of councils, committees, local boards and community boards, except where the meetings has gone into public excluded. Members can elect to hold workshops to debate and find out more about an issue and these are often held without the public being present. Please note: decisions cannot be made at workshops.

(Information courtesy of Local Government New Zealand)

What does it take to be an effective elected member?

Regardless of governance role, there are some consistent attributes of effective politicians. It’s a challenging role, balancing a range of competing demands while trying to collaborate with your colleagues.

Here are some useful skills and attributes:

Quality decision-making
  • Making decisions based on staff advice, community views, wisdom, experience, and informed judgement.
  • Being financially prudent and having an eye for risk.
Strategic thinking
  • Understanding the district, city or region’s priorities and how they relate to national and international developments.
Political and policy acumen
  • Understanding the political environment and the respective roles of governors and management.
  • Getting to the bottom of issues and being able to assess the pros and cons of different options.
  • Providing direction and making things happen to achieve the council’s vision and outcomes with an emphasis on strategic priorities.
Cultural awareness
  • Understanding and empathising with the different peoples and cultures within the council’s jurisdiction.
  • Understanding tikanga Māori and the council’s responsibilities under the Treaty of Waitangi.
  • Bringing an open-mind to decision-making.
  • Understanding how local government impacts on different peoples and cultures.
Knowledge of local government
  • Understanding the role of the council and its financial language, budgets and processes.
  • Understanding and complying with relevant legislation.
Communication and engagement
  • Representing and promoting the council in a measured, unified and dignified light and avoiding risks to council’s reputation.
  • Working effectively with the media, as appropriate.
Relationship building and teamwork
  • Building productive and supportive relationships with the community, councillors, and external organisations to create and deliver the council’s vision and outcomes.
  • Understanding and modeling the council’s values and behaviours and discouraging unethical behaviour.
  • Working respectfully with council staff and others, and valuing their roles.
Integrity and trust
  • Taking ownership and responsibility for actions and not misrepresenting him/herself or others for personal gain.

(Information courtesy of Local Government New Zealand)