Kiwis go to town

New Zealand, new councils. Paul Gosling reports on a local government revolution that Labour could copy here

For such a small country, New Zealand has been making impressive waves in recent years. Just as Britain's privatisation programme has been copied across the world, so New Zealand's public management reforms have been seen by many as a blueprint for the modern state. But while most attention has focused on changes to the way central government operates, a study published today looks at council reforms which might be copied here.

Bob Chilton, head of local government studies at the Audit Commission and author of the report Kiwi Experience, is careful to say that it is not the commission's place to propose further local government reform. That does not prevent him arguing that political parties and local authorities should examine the effects of what is probably the world's most comprehensive overhaul of municipal government.

Change has started at the top, improving the quality of strategic management. The chief executive is the sole employee of a New Zealand council, the only person accountable to elected councillors. All other staff are employed by the chief executive. While this gives chief executives more operational freedom, it also gives them greater responsibilities. In one authority, the director of finance made a major mistake and resigned but the councillors still sacked the chief executive. There was no other way councillors could show electors they had taken action.

New Zealand councils are required to conduct strategic financial planning, incorporating draft budgets for at least 10 years into the future. Projects that are financially unsustainable are flagged up at an early stage. It would not by itself overcome the end-of-year budget insanity that sometimes afflicts British local government, but this can be the result of decisions imposed on councils by central government at late notice.

A partnership approach adopted by the two arms of the state prevents similar conflict arising in New Zealand. "Disciplines imposed by government on local government are also imposed on itself," says Mr Chilton. "The sense that 'we are getting dumped on' is less evident in New Zealand than in the UK. Cabinet ministers step out of cabinet and become local mayors."

Resource accounting, which records assets and their use, has been adopted more fully in New Zealand than here. Mr Chilton describes British councils as having gone just "a first step" towards financial transparency. The current book value of assets is recorded, but accounts ignore the question of how much needs to be spent on them. In New Zealand public accounts show both, with central government accounts stating the value of its navy and its forests, and what expenditure is required for their maintenance.

An internal market for public contracts operates between local authority trading enterprises (Lates). They can bid for work from other councils, also competing against the private sector, even exporting goods and services. A local authority-owned electricity supply company has become a major operator across the Pacific Rim region.

With no system of councillor surcharges, any losses sustained by a Late would have to be met by its local ratepayers. Mr Chilton is worried that some councils have not carried out risk assessment exercises on their commercial operations. But the focus on local authority enterprise helps to keep rate bills down.

Management appraisal systems are also very different. While in Britain there is a reliance on internal auditors to spot fraud and improve management practices, in New Zealand the focus is on annual performance appraisal reports to councillors. These give statistics on service standards, comparing costs and achievements with councils elsewhere in the country, along with user feedback. This is helped by the adoption of computer modelling systems which are common across the country.

Councillors conducting their annual council review, and setting budgets, rely heavily on a user benefit analysis. This identifies who uses services, whether they are rich or poor, residents or visitors. It is also usual in New Zealand to set up peer group assessment. A chief executive who wants to review the operation of leisure centres may ask the council's environmental health and planning officers to produce a report.

The emphasis on strategic planning is clearly improving management standards in New Zealand councils, but it would be wrong to make excessive claims. New Zealand councillors, like their British counterparts, have difficulty in recognising how their role differs from that of officers. In any case, local authorities in New Zealand are so much smaller than those in Britain that there must be reservations about the transferability of some of the lessons.

Yet many, including Bob Chilton, would welcome a greater focus in British local government on what he terms the "visibility and accountability" that is found in New Zealand. And British councils would be keen to see a spirit of partnership instead of confrontation coming from central government.

A Labour Party in office may look closely at the Kiwi experience.

'Kiwi Experience' is available at pounds 8 from Audit Commission Publications (0800 502030).

News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
News
people
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ecommerce Executive

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Ecommerce Executive Working with an...

Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Supply teaching - A great w...

Year 3 Teacher needed- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: Look no further; this is the ...

Primary NQT Teachers

£95 - £105 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: Opportunities for NQTs for the...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices