Democracy vs technocracy

A mixed model of governance? More reliance on CCOs? Or should local body engineers just step up their game? I believe it’s time to have ‘the’ debate.

For anyone who has visited Queenstown in the past three years, their first impression on leaving the airport will be of congestion and construction. Queenstown is scrambling to get ahead of growth. Admittedly, its traffic problems are not on the scale of Auckland’s, but the town’s prosperity depends solely on delivering a world-class visitor experience. And tourists don’t expect to pay a premium for traffic jams and delays.

The new Kawarau Falls Bridge (as shown in NZTA’s photo above) is due to open mid-2018. That’s two years ahead of its original date, but some would say ten years after it was needed. By waiting for traffic problems to arise before fixing them, is Queenstown signalling that its primary export — the visitor experience — is not a priority?

Small towns with big city problems are not exclusive to Queenstown. Many parts of New Zealand must confront problems much larger than themselves.

  • Over 10,000 residents of low-lying South Dunedin face the real threat of sea level rise in the next 30 years. The area under threat is ten times larger than the Christchurch earthquake red zone.
  • Since last year’s water contamination incident in Havelock North, we have discovered that many of our 1,174 drinking water schemes are not as safe as previously believed (Ministry of Health 2017). Many will require greater treatment or new water sources to be found.
  • House prices are well beyond the reach of most New Zealanders. Our inefficient land use consenting process is often cited as the mechanism that keeps supply safely slower than demand.
  • Over the next ten years, local and central government, and the private sector will spend over $100 billion of CAPEX on infrastructure (National Infrastructure Unit of NZ, Treasury, 2016).
  • Compounding all of this is ageing infrastructure and an ageing workforce of technical experts.

I’m an engineer, and many local government engineers I talk with feel their ability to fix these problems is constrained. I am increasingly being told these problems are beyond the capability of elected representatives and that the participative model of local government simply paralyses decision-making.

There is a growing sentiment that when it comes to infrastructure and land use planning, council officers just need to be delegated the authority to get on with the job.

We can counter-argue that an engineer has a duty to provide expert advice that will lead the public to take the correct course of action. We cannot, after all, prosper from technological advancement without depending on the authority of experts.

There are as many famous examples of failed technocracies as there are ineffective democracies. So perhaps the problem lies with our risk-averse engineers and their inability to be audacious, persuasive and innovative?

The failed technocracy of the old Eastern Bloc countries was knows for its ability to produce ‘what the people needed’.

This debate is career-limiting for politicians and engineers (hopefully not for me!) It shouldn’t be though, because a democracy only gets stronger when it is put under stress. If you don’t adapt ahead of change, change is thrust upon you.

So how else could our system work?

It is time to start asking direct questions and, hopefully, remove stigma from the debate. A mixed model of governance is one idea. It is designed to provide complementary expertise with an elected representative majority.

Environment Canterbury (ECan) currently operates under this model, with seven elected councillors and up to six appointed. The District Health Board model is similar, with seven elected members and up to four appointed. For both models, appointments are made to complement the skills and experience of those elected in order to deliver the organisation;s objectives.

Considering the bow wave of experienced engineers due to retire in the next ten years, I don’t anticipate a shortage of available appointees.

Would an organisation established purely to deliver core services make a difference?

Council Controlled Organisations (CCOs) are already providing core services to councils in our largest cities: think Auckland Transport, Watercare, and Wellington Water.

Councils in smaller regions could form a regional CCO by placing their infrastructure assets in its management (not ownership). Councils could appoint board members who would, in turn, employ people with the technical expertise to deliver core services.

Obvious benefits include economies of scale, of expertise and of resources for each individual council. Technical experts could also get the opportunity to advance their skills by working in a large organisation.

Or do our technical experts simply need to lift their game?

Ultimately, this lies at the heart of the debate. I am increasingly hearing from engineers that the advancement of the public works profession has plateaued.

Cynically, it seems a good pubic works engineer is now judged on their ability to comply with processes and regulations, rather than on their ability to resourcefully solve problems. Ironically, this is a result of regulatory changes focused on ensuring ratepayers get value for money. Yet all this seems to have done is further instil an environment of fear and risk aversion.

When you are not comfortable with risk, you over-insure yourself by throwing more resources at the problem. Welcome to the downward spiral.

So, perhaps the debate is ultimately about trust?

Maybe we should trust in a system that has over 2000 years’ worth of trial and error. Perhaps we should trust that it will eventually work as it is supposed to.

I don’t know how much longer people can wait though. Especially those tourists still stuck in traffic outside Queenstown Airport…

If you’re curious about this article or want to discuss it further, leave a comment or get in touch with Vaughn.

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