Exploring Local Democracy
interview with Councillor Jinty MacTavish
We sought out Councillor Jinty MacTavish to get a inside take on local government and the mechanics of our local democratic system in this interview.
1. Kia ora Jinty! You’re a second term councillor, and you made news in 2010 as the “>second youngest person ever elected as a Dunedin city councillor”, but also for your commitment to address the big challenges. At BRCT we’re aware of the evolution towards greater openness and transparency at the DCC that has taken place over the past two terms, but I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what it’s been like ‘on the inside’, and how things have changed for you from those fresh-faced days?
It was a bit of a shock to be elected. Combine that with the fact that I was thrown straight into a world of age-old systems and structures that were very new to me… "fresh-faced” is definitely an apt description. The first few months, I was totally drowned in reading. For every new report that we were sent, I usually felt I had to read another couple in order to understand the context for the decision. I remember also that I was completely terrified every time the phone rang, lest it be the ODT wanting to know my view on something that I didn’t yet know enough about. I also found the rigidity of process pretty challenging. At my first meeting I remember explaining my view of a matter we needed to make a decision on, and had to be prompted by the Chair to explain whether I supported (or not) the specific motion on the table. At the time, that seemed slightly bizarre – I felt I had clearly explained the issues I thought needed to be considered, and the concept that I had to either “agree” or “disagree” with a particular statement seemed flawed. Where, I thought, was the organic sharing of views and ideas that I was familiar with? How, in this highly structured environment, was it possible to collectively pool knowledge, before deciding on the best way forward?
Fast-forward five years, and those kinds of things don’t bother me so much. I’m familiar with the context of most of the issues that crop up, can usually guess what the media will call about, and (for better or worse), I’m now used to navigating the archaic rules that govern our meetings. But other challenges remain.
Sustainability, resilience, regenerative design – all of these concepts are pretty simple in theory, but in practice they can be hard to apply. Quite apart from the concern about some of these concepts that exists in our community, the incoming council’s inheritance is no blank canvas. Rather, it’s a complex mosaic of infrastructure and systems and budgets reflecting decades of decisions based on decades of community knowledge and aspiration (and whim, and prejudice). Very little can be changed overnight, and indeed some things are difficult to change at all when extremely expensive systems have been designed into the very fabric of the city, cementing themselves over time in citizens’ daily routines and expectations. Water, energy, transport: the evolution of these services has resulted in fairly resource-intensive infrastructure, and such is our collective investment in those systems, change comes at fairly exorbitant cost. Since I was elected, we’ve not had much in the way of money to fund step-changes in infrastructure. As a result, much of our emphasis has been on developing a suite of strategies to guide decision-making (supported by the two principles of sustainability and Te Tiriti o Waitangi). If future councils are able to put this strategic framework at the core of their decision-making, I’m hopeful that we’ll see the evolution of Dunedin’s infrastructure chart a positive course over the coming years. But it’s slow, and given how fickle politicians can be, it’s not guaranteed!
2. You also have a reputation as someone who works full-time as a councillor, rather than just wearing the role as a status in addition to your other activities. Can you tell us about this?
When I was first elected, I was working as an Enviroschools facilitator/coordinator, which meant I was technically a council employee. Clearly I couldn’t sit on both sides of the governance/management fence, so resigned from my Enviroschools position. I thought initially I’d just be a full-time councillor for the first year or so, while I got my head around the role, but I soon realised the role is as all-consuming as I’d let it be. One of the things I love about being a councillor is the diversity of things you’re involved in. I never really know what will be waiting in my inbox in the morning, and even the scheduled meetings and committees cover an incredibly broad range of city issues. As a full-time councillor, I’m more able to say “yes” to all the opportunities that exist to contribute: participating in hearings and subcommittees, representing the council at events and on organisations, engaging with the public both on- and off-line, and I wouldn’t feel that I was representing my constituents as well as I could be if I had to turn down those opportunities. So although I do other voluntary work, I don’t have a second paid position.
3. Thinking about making local government meaningful for and relevant to residents, can you tell us of some of the ways you think things are moving in the right direction?
It's a slow and ongoing process! I think one of the best decisions I've made as a councillor was to set up a social media presence for council mahi. The feedback I've had about this has been really positive, with people saying that the regular posts have helped them better understand what the council does and how they can get involved in decision-making. With the council also how having a formal social media presence, the People's Panel up and running, the regular FYI brochure heading out to people's mailboxes, and a couple of other councillors also being pretty active online, I feel increasingly good about the outreach that's happening.
I'm also increasingly happy with the public checks and balances and partnership approaches that we're putting around our new eight-part strategic framework. For Ara Toi – Our Creative Future (the new Dunedin arts and culture strategy), we're establishing a governance group made up not only of representatives from relevant partner organisations, but a number of members of the public selected for a term of service following a public call for nominations. Complementing the governance group, an annual community event and a triennial hui will examine progress and review the direction that the strategy is taking. We're proposing a similar approach for Te Ao Tūroa – Our Natural World (our draft Environment Strategy) and we're thinking about revamping our approach to our social wellbeing strategy along the same lines. Time will tell and perhaps I'll have cause to rethink whether it's a good model, but I think it's a powerful combination of key partners and community representation uniting to deliver on strategies that have been co-developed with the community.
We can always do better, and I think we need to learn from the participatory budgeting work that happens in suburbs of many cities overseas, especially in South America, and initiatives elsewhere that support and celebrate city volunteers in coordinated, fun ways. We've identified stronger communities as one of the key things we want to be fostering through our social wellbeing strategy work, and I think being enabling of community participation in both decision-making and delivery of civic projects is pretty key to that. We're kicking off a neighbourhood matching fund this year with an eye to supporting small-scale community-building initiatives. I'd like to see more of that thinking in all that we do at the council.
4. Last year, you visited cities and councils in Europe and gathered some ideas on the different ways local governments in that part of the world were doing to address the challenges of climate change and increase their resilience. We’re not so much interested in the whole story, but would love to hear of what insights you brought back that can be applied here, and maybe already are being applied?
So many insights! I’m combining a few insights from Europe here with those from another ICLEI [Local Governments for Sustainability] conference I recently attended, but it’s hard to tease them apart.
When I visited the UK, local government budgets were being squeezed pretty hard, which was putting enormous pressure on services. Obviously there are some pretty awful things that come out of that scenario, and I’m certainly not advocating for it, but desperate times drive innovation as well. What I did enjoy was seeing traditional local government silos looking sideways to identify synergies between agendas, partnering to deliver projects in new ways, and designing multi-functionality into systems and services. Systems are so much stronger, so much more efficient and so much more valued when they’re designed to deliver many different outcomes. In other parts of Europe, it seems government is increasingly taking that approach even without the budget cuts. As an example, climate change adaptation in Copenhagen is about trying to mitigate the impact of the increasingly intense cloudbursts they’re going to have. Instead of just putting in bigger drains and more concrete, they’re focusing on expanding public green space and water bodies to soak up the water. Most of time, these places will just be beautiful recreational spaces and active transport thoroughfares, enhancing outcomes for biodiversity and soaking up carbon. But when it rains hard they’ll be there to ensure flooding is mitigated. That’s smart planning.
And it’s not just in climate change adaptation that cities are seeing opportunity. On my travels, it became very obvious to me how different the attitude to climate change mitigation is in the UK and Europe. Over there, the low carbon agenda is generally viewed as an essential part of city strategy, low carbon futures are talked about as a place of abundance and wellbeing, and cities are in competition over who is smartest and greenest. I think we’re stuck in a bit of a deficit mentality here in New Zealand around what emissions reduction actually means. I came back feeling that I really wanted to help that shift.
In terms of how they’re making progress, cities are setting targets for non-financial outcomes in areas where success has traditionally been measured only in financial terms. I went to a couple of workshops on sustainable public procurement during my travels, and reflecting on what other cities are doing has made me think it’s quite critical that we identify specifically what success would look like in non-financial terms, if we want sustainable procurement as an outcome. Without that specificity, procurement managers will always be driven by the one thing that can clearly be measured in every transaction: cost, in financial terms. In Copenhagen, for example, targets include 85% of its vehicle fleet electric or hydrogen-powered by 2016, 90% of its public sector food organic by 2016, plus social contract clauses placing expectations on suppliers to use trainees in order to combat youth unemployment.
Another trend in what I saw was finding room, even where budgets were tight, to support small-scale community experimentation with public space. It’s about giving permission and making it easy for people, not big costs or risk for the council. A small example from Freiburg: they’ve proactively identified sites on public reserves (or road reserves) where growing food is allowed. They’ve clearly marked these with signage, and basically said “go for it”. And I’ve been inspired by Reykjavik’s “Meanwhile Spaces” programme, which calls for proposals from creative people in the community wanting to do something innovative and fun with public space. Successful proposals are supported with small budgets, and presumably made easy with permissions and the like. The result is a low-cost approach to urban design, simultaneously building community and welcoming ongoing community dialogue about the function of public space.
5. People can argue with some legitimacy that previous councils have made some very poor financial and strategic decisions. Criticism of the DCC seems almost an acceptable sport these days, in fact. Does this criticism (and its opposite, complacency) present a challenge to you as a councillor and to the council as a body that works for its constituents?
In my view, the worst thing in any democracy is a lack of interest and engagement. I think cultivating community interest in the council’s activities is an critical part of a councillor’s role, which is why I’m so active on social media, and why it’s rare for me to turn down an opportunity to discuss council’s activities either with constituents directly or indirectly through the media. Challenges both from other councillors and from members of the public are an essential part of a democracy and I quite enjoy exploring others’ thoughts and ideas. It’s not uncommon for input directly from constituents to change my thoughts on any given situation. What I do struggle with is criticism based on incorrect assumptions, or ad hominem attacks that have little to do with the issues and more to do with the personalities involved. Those things I don’t really think add much to public debate or discourse and just build division and misunderstanding in our community.
6. Can you tell us about how the council is working to be more transparent, both in terms of information and process? Any good examples?
We’ve improved things a lot, but I think there’s still lots we can do. I'm a big fan of FYI, which is a few years old know, but I like the format much more than the old CityTalk magazine that existed when I was first elected. FYI is regular, comprehensive and to the point, portable and goes to every household. The council didn’t even have a social media presence back in 2010, so we’ve come a long way on that front too. I’m proud to have been part of a council that voted to revoke a rule that prevented meetings being recorded, and to put in place a system that now sees them filmed and broadcast by Channel 39 and then archived online. Last triennium we also became the first council in the country to start publishing all Official Information Act request responses online, which gained praise from the Chief Ombudsman.
More recently staff have introduced a new report template which prompts consideration and disclosure of a range of matters, including who has been consulted in development of the report and associated recommendations. I like its focus on our new strategic framework and guiding principles, though I think that section can be strengthened. I think we’ve still got a way to go in terms of improving reporting of non-financial outcomes, supported by an agreed set of more holistic measures and some strong non-financial targets. Some of this work around measures is being supported by the sustainability audit subcommittee (a new feature of the council’s structure this triennium, set up to improve our commitment to sustainability across the organisation). In terms of targets, on the environmental side we’re seeking feedback about those through our current consultation on the environment strategy.
In terms of a specific example of how we've improved process, our annual Civic Grants would be a good one. Historically there has been no formal structure for these; organisations seeking funds for operations have shown up to the council every year at Annual Plan time and made their pitch. Councillors decided to fund these requests (or not) depending on their feelings on the day, with no criteria and inconsistent degrees of information about any given organisation or their project. Over the last five years we have slowly improved the application process. This year, for the first time, we have introduced a ring-fenced fund for Civic Grants (now called City Service and Project Grants), with revised criteria. The council decides on the quantum of funds it wishes to apply to this grant pool in any given year, and applications are now considered separately by the grants subcommittee, rather than being lumped in with all of the other decisions the council needs to make at Annual Plan time. It feels like a much fairer and more transparent approach, albeit a very difficult job for the grants subcommittee, particularly when funds are tight.
7. At BRCT we make submissions on plans and strategies and engage with most DCC public submission opportunities. Can you tell us what sort of impact submissions and input from organisations such as ours have at a local government level?
Whenever I am asked about the importance of submissions (from organisations and individuals), I say the same thing: their importance can’t really be overstated. One of the most critical factors driving decisions around the council table is community support for an idea or direction. Just because the council has proposed something for the purposes of consultation does not mean it's a done deal. Councillors are only as strong as the mandate that the community gives them under any process, and under some of the consultation processes run by the council it's only views received as submissions that can even be considered. So community input is essential and, in my experience, virtually always ensures the decision is more robust.
8. Can you offer advice on how we, on the outside, could do better?
It would be great to have more input from more people, more often! I know part of that is improving the council’s own processes to make our engagement feel more relevant and enjoyable, and that’s a constant work in progress. The recent changes to the Local Government Act make it possible for us to be a bit more imaginative about how we seek feedback, and I’m hoping that we make the most of that. But there are already loads of ways to get involved, from joining the People's Panel, to providing input and feedback on the council’s social media (or the social media pages of local councillors), to coming along and speaking on an issue that you’re passionate about in the public forum before any one of the council’s meetings. The best way to have your say, though, is still via submissions on specific consultations.
I’m often asked what the best way to submit is. I don’t think there’s a “right” or a “wrong” way, but I think there are things you can do that ensure your thoughts are more likely to be clearly understood and remembered:
Be really clear about what it is that you are asking for. Writing a summary sentence for each point that you’re raising is one way of doing this.
Come along and speak to your submission, if there is an opportunity to do so.
Be as constructive as you can in your criticism. You may feel that we’ve completely missed the point, and quite possibly we have, but we need to know what to do about it, not just that we’re completely wrong in various shades of purple.
9. Finally, faced with the enormous threat that climate change poses to our city, our way of life and our society, and the urgency with which we have to act, what can we all do to ensure we’re able to cope with the changing world?
I ask myself that question a lot, and I'm not sure I've got an adequate answer yet. I'd love to hear from someone who's got it sorted! I do think we need to be getting a whole lot more active as citizens, prioritising the long-term common good in our own decisions and actively engaging with government to hold them to the same high standards. Solving the challenges facing New Zealand at the moment requires us to be thinking more broadly than “my life” and “my rights”, and for a few decades there I think we neglected to adequately prioritise or celebrate that kind of thinking. My observation is that’s changing here in Dunedin and that as citizens we're increasingly investing our energy in building community and active citizenship, which I find pretty exciting. When I look at cities that are really leading the charge on sustainable development, my completely unscientific observation is that they often have a strong collective sense of identity too, so we're on the right track. We just need to amplify that – keeping focused on the fact that the future will be a much healthier, happier place, abundant in all the right things, if we get it right.