Andrea Vance is a senior writer for Stuff.
OPINION: Wellington City Council, so edgy right now.
The capital centre is tired, pipes are bursting, rates are sky-rocketing, residents are scratchy at an incoherent public transport plan, and its council has been plagued with dysfunction for a quarter of a century.
Faced with these problems, it has moved into ‘content creation’. Because there’s nothing a dose of good PR can’t fix.
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Like some excruciatingly hip Shoreditch marketing company, their ‘comms team’ have embraced the latest trend in marketing: the social media manager gone rogue. The result is a TikTok account so cringeworthy it could reset broken toes.
A touch of snark, a creepy disembodied face, making their jobs part of ‘the bit’ and sometimes mocking the brand they are being paid to promote. You’ve seen fast-food companies like Wendy’s do it, but well.
Communications has its place in local democracy – for telling people when to put the bins out, or explaining why they’ve replaced all the car parks with plant-pots (crime prevention, apparently).
But, when the country is laser-focused on public spending, and nervous about soaring household bills, this sassy online persona isn’t charming. It’s just insulting ratepayers to pay people to create cute in-jokes for their pals, pout and dress-up as a banana.
As a branding exercise, that TikTok account does send a message, but not the one these clueless creatives intended. It is a powerful reminder of everything that is wrong with our current system – the corporatisation of councils that rendered local democracy all but meaningless.
The roads, rates, rubbish mantra that once defined the purpose of local government was dissolved three decades ago with sweeping reforms. The overhaul not only consolidated local bodies (from over 800 to 87), but transformed them into big business.
They shifted from traditional public administration to more corporate-style structures. Councillors are deliberately kept away from the day-to-day running of their council (like consents or prioritising specific projects).
They ‘set direction’ – in the form of annual or long-term plans – but largely that advice comes from officials, and they are shut out of implementation. Many of the core services are contracted out to private companies, further removing accountability.
Employees report to the all-powerful chief executive, and it is they who have the relationship with the elected representatives. Even if a councillor objected to that misguided TikTok account, they could do very little about it.
Try asking your own councillor to help you with a problem in your community. At best, they can write an email or make a phone call to bureaucrats on your behalf – generally to be met with the same intransigence and indifference that you originally experienced.
That’s because those officials are focused on protecting the interests of their employer – the council – not the community.
This can be equally frustrating for the politicians – after all, it’s they who take the flak.
A newly-elected mayor was astonished when she made a list of people in the community with who she wished to meet, only to be told that the communications team would instead draw up a list of suitable appointments. Another former mayor spoke of how when he sought legal advice about a sub-par official, he found the same official had to sign off on the costs to engage a lawyer.
We are all being managed by chief executives, instead of represented by councillors. And now we are starting to wear the true costs of those three-decade-old reforms.
Across the board, stretched home and small business owners are facing crippling rates hikes as councils grapple with years of under-funding by central government, debt limits and poor financial management.
They are proposing an unpalatable fire sale of public assets – including Auckland and Christchurch airports in the last week – and even bare-bones services look unaffordable into the future.
Instinctively, voters know this – even though they might not understand the reasons for it. It’s why so few people bother to vote.
The Government’s ongoing raid on remaining local power through a programme of centralisation (Three Waters, fluoridating water supplies, and more local government reforms which puts and emphasis on shift from managing infrastructure to “supporting community wellbeing”) will further undermine local democracy.
There was much debate this year about improving council election turnout, and improving the calibre of candidates.
Putting some real power behind that vote – and our toothless councillors is the best way to get citizens participating again. It guarantees more meaningful engagement than a few hundred likes for the marketing intern’s cat video.
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How a council's weird TikTok account represents everything that is … – Stuff
Andrea Vance is a senior writer for Stuff.