A Sea Change in Local Government

Nedine Thatcher Swann, the Chief Executive of Gisborne District Council, sees a local government sector that is starting to make brave decisions.

In the decade I have worked for my local council, I have been privileged to be part of a positive sea change – in mind-sets, operating models, priorities, investments, relationships, and leadership.  

I’d be kidding myself if I said it was all cheese and crackers mind you. It’s been extremely tough work transforming an institution into one that’s more reflective of the community we serve and the values it holds.

We’ve achieved this sea change in spite of the rule books that we work with, which are long overdue for change.

Today, we have more diversity in sex, age, and race – at all levels. With diversity comes alternative perspectives, innovation, and new ways of doing things.

Tangata whenua are our partners, and we are excited about the establishment of Māori wards and the contribution that this new governance model will make to our community.  Environmental and biodiversity outcomes are now a critical priority, and investment is being made to ensure our assets have minimal negative impacts on our environment. We have been bold and innovative with campaigns such as our WFT – What’s the Future Tairawhiti? Campaign, which is our long-term plan to encourage participation. 

During COVID-19, we stepped outside the traditional civil defence group recovery approach (being a unitary authority) and supported our regional leaders (council, iwi, central government senior officials, and our local organisations) to develop Rau Tipu Rau Ora, our region’s response and recovery plan. Having the plan is one thing, but the investment in establishing an ongoing regional leadership group was a very important by-product that will have long-term benefits.

We further shifted the dial when we came together as a region to deliver on the Tairāwhiti Redeployment Programme for displaced workers, who were already suffering the economic circumstances in Te Tairāwhiti and whose situation was worsened by COVID-19.

The programme employs 236 people from our community, and iwi, local authorities, and central government have come together to invest $23.75 million into the programme.

We have seen the most success when we are joined up – central and local government and iwi – and we’re even better when we are also aligned to national outcomes. All of the changes could not have been achieved if our council hadn’t transformed and had the courageous leadership, the crucial conversations, and the collaborative relationships and community participation to deliver. 

However, we still have a long way to go – there is variability of performance across local government. You only have to read the news to see the latest headlines related to poor governance, tangata whenua concerns, and underperformance in terms of meeting community expectations.

Change is on the way; the rule books are being rewritten. The latest shake-up of local government with the resource management reforms, the Three Waters reforms, and the broader local government reforms will have a profound impact on the sector and our communities.

These changes are all promoting better outcomes including:

  • giving local government the explicit role of being a Treaty partner
  • enhanced governance and community participation
  • strong environmental stewardship for future generations
  • better joined-up regional and central service-delivery models
  • effective service delivery to our community.

This is music to my ears!

Rewriting our rule books has the potential to transform our sector by enabling effective leadership and Treaty partnership and by allowing collaborative relationships and participation for the delivery of great services for the communities that we serve and the environment that sustains us.

Now more than ever, we need to be bold and brave and embrace the transformation about to take place so that our mokopuna, and their mokopuna after them, can be proud of us and what we have left them.

Ka pū te ruha, ka hao te rangatahi (the old net is cast aside and the new net goes fishing).