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Insights 45: 25 November 2016
The Local Manifesto: Restoring Local Government Accountability
Julian Morris: Lessons from the sharing economy and the vapour revolution - 28 November
Watch The Local Manifesto report launch and panel discussion

Local partner, ready and willing
Jason Krupp | Research Fellow |
Local government is ready to sit down and talk with central government about improving the sector’s performance, provided policymakers in the Beehive come to the table as a partner, not as a parent.

That was the theme that emerged from the launch of our latest report, The Local Manifesto: Restoring local government accountability, which took place in Wellington on Monday. The high level event hosted Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel and Chief Executive of the Wellington City Council Kevin Lavery.

The report was warmly welcomed by both, which was brave of them to say because it contained a number of brickbats for councils. In particular, it criticised the sector’s poor engagement with communities, and the questionable nature of councils’ spending decisions.

Then again, the report highlighted one of the sector’s long-standing problems. Many of the issues the public regularly take councils to task for stem from the legislative framework in which they operate.

It is little known, for example, that the bulk of local government’s regulatory powers come from 30 different statutes, and this excludes the Local Government Act. And while central government is happy to pass on tasks, it is far less forthcoming with funding.

The end result is that communities have no idea as to who is responsible for the local policies that govern them, or how to hold decision-makers to account. The situation is not helped by central government involving itself in purely local matters such as dog control and campervans.

The Initiative’s solution is simple: make councils answerable to communities they serve. The caveat is that councils need to lift their game by proving they are wise spenders of public money, and that their actions are guided by community will.

It is a tall ask, but one both Dalziel and Lavery seem willing to take. The much taller ask is on central government to cede a significant chunk of decision-making power to local councils.

We would urge central government to take them at their word. For the past 160 years policymakers have increasingly tried to fix local government by centralising power in Wellington, and for just as long they has been disappointed with the results. It is time to try a different approach, one built on partnership not paternalism.

A welcome shake-up
Martine Udahemuka | Research Fellow |
I almost did not read The Herald’s exclusive ‘classroom shake-up’ coverage last week. Quake stories were getting me down. But I am glad I read it as I swiftly found out I was wrong. The piece was referring to the Government’s proposed overhaul of the school funding system - not earthquakes.

The overhaul wasn’t news but some of the details were. National plans to use government-wide data to better tag funding to the needs of individual students.

The information held by Statistics New Zealand in its Integrated Database Infrastructure (IDI) makes it possible to identify the early warning signs of those most likely to fail at school. In April this year the Government announced a set of four indicators to this effect. Although not yet finalised, they have since used more granular data from IDI to come up with a more predictive index.

The initial set was parental Corrections history, Child, Youth and Family notification, long-term beneficiary status, and the primary caregiver or mother’s qualifications. Last week’s refined list included a student’s gender and the mother’s age at the child’s birth.

The Government talked too about its focus on developing a system in which students are supported to make a year’s worth of curriculum progress, in every year of their education.

Hopefully this recognises how each student moves along the learning journey when compared with students who face similar challenges at the start of that journey. One year’s progress can be very different for each student. If a student gains seven additional months of learning in a year where other students with similar challenges gained five; then the student has made stellar progress. Knowing individual risk-factors will matter.

Worryingly, in a paper to Cabinet, the Education Minister highlighted that if they cannot get around regulatory restrictions to use the IDI at the level of individual schools, they may have to rely on a less predictive and less accurate index. This would be a shame.

Using rich information to better support students is a welcome shake-up. Let’s hope its potential does not get killed by unnecessary constraints. 

Hot Tub Talk Machine
Dr Eric Crampton | Head of Research |
Some opportunities you know you’d really regret passing over. And so I found myself on Saturday in a hot tub full of milk with Canterbury law lecturer David Round, Christchurch activist artist Sam Mahon, and chef-in-training Camila Nieuwlands.

Gaby Montejo is one of Christchurch’s more interesting artists, and the post-quake Christchurch arts scene is especially entrepreneurial. Gaby, and others, improvised wonderfully around the city’s demolished and ruined spaces, giving everyone little bits of whimsy and beauty.

I couldn’t really say no when he asked if I’d join in a performance exhibition he was putting on at Christchurch’s Centre of Contemporary Art (CoCA).

He wanted a panel discussion about dairy and the environment in an art space surrounded by other works on environmental themes, but different. Rather than sit at the front of the room at a table with a lectern, we sat in Gaby’s “Honeymoon Latte” – a warm hot tub full of milk – for a conversation about dairy, the environment, and economics, and the amusement of a few dozen spectators who came around to listen in.

I assumed my job was to add a few shots of espresso to the mix, and so had a lot of fun.

David Round reminisced about childhood rivers and prophesised environmental doom. Sam Mahon wondered where all of the promised economic benefits of dairying have turned up, as he couldn’t see them in New Zealand’s small towns. And Camila argued we should try giving up eating dairy as it would make us all feel better.

When the steamy discussion turned to the state of rivers and aquifers, I argued that we have a pricing problem. Water is allocated by resource consents, and trading is pretty limited.

Objectors blocked an Ashburton water bottling plant, but nobody really knows whether it makes more sense to irrigate paddocks and ship milk, or to cut out the middle cow and just ship water. Better water systems could let us find that out.

America ended acid rain with markets in sulphur dioxide emissions. Markets solved a large environmental problem, and can do so in other areas too. New Zealand may yet fix dairy runoff with tradeable permit systems like the Lake Taupo nutrient management regime.

I doubt that the Initiative will adopt hot-tub based report launches. But I’m really glad I was able to make it down to Christchurch for Gaby’s hot tub talk machine. 

You can see more photos here.

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