More openness please, councilors

Our local councils are missing the boat when it comes to getting citizens involved and taking advantage of democratic energy, writes Max Rashbrooke

Our local councils are badly out of step with our times. By that I mean they haven't harnessed the surge of new democratic energy now sweeping the world.

Inspired by the need to ward off authoritarian rulers and reconnect democracy with the people, local bodies worldwide are finding strikingly innovative ways to open themselves up to scrutiny and get citizens directly involved in decision-making.

In making themselves profoundly, transformatively open, they are becoming public bodies truly fit for the 21st century.

New Zealand's councils, in contrast, have picked up relatively few of these innovations, aside from the Porirua Village Planning model of delegated budgets, Wellington's use of online decision-making software Loomio, and a few other examples.

This is all the more disappointing given the local traditions on which councils could draw, especially Māori practices that emphasise deep discussion and consensus decision-making.

So there are plenty of options for candidates wanting to get residents energised and meet young people's expectation of a greater say over key decisions. Here's just five ideas they could pick up:

  • 1. Citizens' assemblies: eliciting intelligent public opinion

If you want to know the public's considered opinion, including the trade-offs they would make, what better way than to bring a representative sample of residents together, give them training, time and access to experts, and ask them to discuss and decide on the best options? In Queenstown, for instance, this could reveal what balance locals really want struck between increased tourist numbers and preserving a quieter way of life. On the Kāpiti Coast, it could help devise a climate adaptation plan that had broad public support. Unlike standard consultations, which elicit individual views that can be unrealistic and uninformed, citizens' assemblies represent the collective wisdom that comes to the surface after high-quality debate.

  • 2. Councillors' interests: ensuring conflicts are declared

Our MPs face tough scrutiny: they have to declare the properties, businesses and other assets they own and any gifts they receive over $500. This helps us check they are taking decisions to further their own finances rather than acting genuinely in the public interest. The same principles should apply to councillors – but although many councils have registers of financial interests and gifts, not all do. So in some cases we don't know what is swaying councillors' votes. We need councillors who will implement comprehensive registers of interests where they don't already exist – and who will properly handle any potential conflicts of interest.

  • 3. Devolved planning: densification that residents 'own'

In the 1980s, Seattle's vision for a compact, green city that built "up not out" got sunk by Nimbyism. So in the 1990s, they hired staff to work one on one to (re)build relationships with communities. They then gave the areas earmarked for greater density significant funds to draw up their own vision for new housing and zoning rules. Locals also got expert advice and tools to help them become "citizen planners". The plans they produced were mailed to all residents, tested at "alternatives fairs", and scrutinised by the council. The result? A set of plans that delivered the densification the city council wanted – but which, being "owned" by local communities, had lasting support.

  • 4. Donations: revealing more, earlier

Candidates have to declare campaign donations over $1500. But that still leaves plenty of room for undue influence. An individual and their friends can each donate $1499 while remaining anonymous. A really big donation – $50,000 for a mayoral candidate, say – is likely to give the donor an influence not enjoyed by other citizens. And all this only comes out after the election. We need candidates who will, in line with a long-standing  Stuff campaign, declare their major donations before the election, so we can vote with full knowledge. And candidates should pledge to declare donations at a lower level – anything over $500, say – and to investigate fairer mechanisms for funding campaigns.

  • 5. Participatory budgeting: letting citizens decide

Hundreds of councils worldwide use "participatory budgeting", putting up a proportion of their infrastructure spending to a direct public vote. But this is no referendum-style, tick-box process. Local neighbourhoods have to weigh up the options and pick – for instance – new street lighting over improved pedestrian crossings. Those trade-offs then get pushed up to the ward level before a final city-wide budget is drawn up by temporary citizens' representatives in full public view. Evaluations by the World Bank and others show this leads to better-quality spending that is more attuned to public needs and significantly improves people's lives.

This commentary first appeared online on Stuff.