Friday, January 23, 2015

Why local gubmint 'dithers'

Local Government 'dithering', while an accurate description as seen from outside the tent, is in fact structural.

LG is a creature of statue, and 'consultation' is firmly entrenched in those statutes.  Plus, there are three competing streams of playaz whose interactions create, extend, and perpetuate the dither:

1 - Central Gubmint, who can (dimly and fitfully) sense the macro-economic picture which emerges from the 70-odd LG layers whirling away beneath them.  CG is purposefully designed to be movable only incrementally, so observing an unwanted, emergent effect (like the AKL hoosing bubble) has no timeline for the fix, even if the causes and cures are clear (which is rare...).

2 - LG pollies, like Len the Bruin, have particular positions to cleave to, and need to not offend enough electors, in order to get elected next time around.  Pollies can only set Policy, not Manage, and particularly not micro-manage.  So they rely on unelected staff to do the heavy lifting (in every sense, including intellectually) with regard to policy options for proposed changes, day-to-day implementation for existing policy, and reporting to and from on the results of or issues with, existing policy.  Most LG pollies are to be frank cowed by the superior horsepower of staff, so tend to occupy an uncertain DMZ between staff and ratepayers.  They are essentially cheerleaders for whatever the staff du jour have dreamed up, done, or screwed up.

3 - LG staff hold most of the cards except the money one.  As a bureaucracy, they run by two immutable principles:

  • Peter (rise inexorably to one click above their level of competence), and 
  • Preservation (defend turf, extend it where possible, never yield ground.)  
This guarantees three observable aspects of LG staff culture:

  1. a united front, 
  2. a heap of dead wood, and 
  3. a rigid observance of 'rules'.  
So staff will unblinkingly decline to use discretion (not in the rules), obfuscate (to divert attention away from their core incompetence), and back each other up regardless of the merits of the event, action, or emergent effect.   As they are not elected, they regard Councillors as a passing parade of buffoons, sitting at a distant table, and having only minimal effect on their own closed world.   As staff are employed by the CEO, who is in turn the Council's only 'employee', no cultural change will occur without a change of CEO.

Dithering, as should be clear, is structural.....the only real handle the Council has is the $ one.

Christchurch Geotechnical vulnerability

The Christchurch situation (highly varied pockets of riverine silt interpsersed with gravel bars and peat) was very well known by the early 1990's:  see for example this paper, where the uncomfortable conclusion was reached that (final para of Summary) "the draft code may underestimate shaking by a factor of 2 or more".

This makes the Bexley, Atlantis (yes, Virginia, one of the worst-affected streets was named just that...) etc. subdivisions all the more unexplicable.

An early (Waitaha) name for the area was 'Waima-iri-iri' - the place of many waters, and the early Black Maps show watercourses throughout the central city that later turned out to be areas of particular vulnerability.

Both the Regional and City Councils have never really acknowledged their compiicity in waving through much of the newer Red Zone subdivisions.....given the by then well-understood geotechnical vulnerabilities.

Hugh P lays the blame on the 1989 swathe of amalgamations, which wiped out much intimate local knowledge, diverted attention to organisation-building instead of community safeguarding, and introduced a quasi-corporate ethos which glorified 'growth'.  The attendant surge in rates, staffing, empires, and organisational layers is something which has come to bite the current Council, which faces a $1.2 billion shortfall in funding, against a rates income of around the $370-450 million mark, and with its head up against a debt-funding ceiling.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but the sad conclusion is that the whole shebang lacked the back-bone, the balls, and the brains to have done something to mitigate the known hazards.

The one shining exception was the electrical-supply organisation, which promptly reinforced every single one of its substations, resulting in minimal damage to that infrastructure compared to (say) the three-waters administered by the Clueless Council.

So in the light of the above, one must ask, would things be much different now, even with a shiny new RMA???