A community-based approach to wellbeing: Local government needs to be central

Michael Mills (Director) and Philippa Bowron (Lead for Local Government) from MartinJenkins argue that tackling wellbeing issues in Aotearoa requires a community-based approach and that our local councils have the understanding and connections that are critical here.

The broad outlines of a better kind of ‘wellbeing’ society in Aotearoa aren’t much disputed — things like an inclusive economy where everyone earns a decent income; a clean, unpolluted environment where we can swim in our rivers; and communities where everyone feels safe and supported and where, as much as possible, we know each other’s names.

But the real-life context for national goals like these is always locally specific. The economy of Wairoa is a million miles from that of Auckland, environmental issues in Kaikohe in the Far North are different from those in Blackball on the West Coast, the culture of Invercargill is quite different from Thames-Coromandel, and the social composition of Rotorua isn’t comparable to Nelson.

The Government has recognised the need for community-based approaches to tackling wellbeing issues, recently passing a far-reaching amendment to the Local Government Act. The statutory purpose of local government in the Act now again includes broader wellbeing goals framed in a community context, so that it’s now part of councils’ purpose to ‘promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of communities’.

Local councils know local communities

Speaking to the statutory changes in May, Local Government Minister Hon Nanaia Mahuta said that central government is ‘determined to work alongside local government to empower communities and give them a stronger voice and role in lifting their own well-being’.

This signalling that central government is open to a partnership approach with local government is a welcome development. The administrators, regulators and service deliverers who know New Zealand’s communities best are often in local government. There is seldom anyone better-placed to understand — and often to deliver — what’s needed to improve wellbeing in our diverse communities.

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Councils usually have an understanding of what interventions are needed to solve homelessness in their area.
Image source: Pixabay

Let’s look at social wellbeing and homelessness. Many councils will have someone who’s able to say how many homeless people they have in their area, where they sleep, what agencies are set up to help them, how those agencies operate, and where they’re effective and where they’re not. Importantly, councils usually have an understanding of what interventions are needed to solve homelessness in their area.

There is similar data available in councils around a number of other social and environmental issues, and councils also usually have a grasp of what’s needed to address those problems.

That kind of coalface understanding of policy issues is often lacking at central government level, and is difficult to apply to centrally and universally designed and delivered services. Unfortunately, it’s too often the case that central government doesn’t think to ask local government for that information so that it can be used to inform policy design and delivery, especially in areas other than the environment. And if even if they did ask, the information would of course be different from region to region. Trying to amalgamate the information to provide a single national picture would likely be pointless.

Our councils are already doing a lot — they could be resourced and empowered to do much more

Many New Zealanders aren’t aware of the full range of activities managed by local government. When they think ‘local government’ they usually think roads, rubbish, libraries, parks and reserves, and building consents. Many are surprised to learn that the list also includes economic development, food safety, drinking, wastewater and stormwater management, heritage, community venues, emergency management, gambling consents, public art, and sometimes social housing.

Put simply, local councils oversee the urban design of cities and townships, the day-to-day upkeep of them, and the activities within them. They’re responsible for the look and feel of the places where we live, work and play. They understand the connections between urban design, infrastructure investment, housing, economic activity and social well-being. But in the words of the Productivity Commission in its recent draft report, ‘If councils struggle to deal with rising costs, or have poor incentives for improving performance, this will lead to communities failing to reach their potential’ (Local government funding and financing: Draft report, July 2019).

Most councils also have a good understanding of the importance of cultural wellbeing for our communities, including the impact it can have on social and economic wellbeing, and for that matter on environmental wellbeing too. Cultural wellbeing in multicultural Aotearoa can’t just be about statues in the main street. It’s about art and culture providing pathways to inclusion and to a shared understanding of our differences, and breaking down barriers caused by fear and misunderstanding. It’s about providing our young people with a vehicle for being part of a society they often feel excluded from.

Most councils have been investing in emerging arts, artists and cultural activities not only for the sake of a more vibrant city or township, but also for what they contribute to social inclusion. Fostering cultural wellbeing is now an important element in how local government works in New Zealand.

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Local councils are responsible for the look and feel of the places where we live, work and play.
Image source: MartinJenkins

Reinventing the central-local government relationship

The Productivity Commission’s draft report notes that a key cause of funding pressures on local government is the continued accumulation of functions and responsibilities that central government has passed to councils over the years.

In our view the generally centralised one-size-fits-all approach to policy-making on the one hand and the accumulating funding pressure on councils on the other are important barriers to solving complex and important problems such as intergenerational poverty, homelessness and environmental degradation — our child poverty stats, for example, are just getting worse, not better.

Even an indisputably global issue like climate change has very localised impacts that need a local lens. New Zealand local issues related to climate change range from melting glaciers, coastal storm events, inundated water infrastructure, and flooding of housing in low-lying areas.

Tackling wellbeing shortfalls first requires a systematic mapping of where the areas of deprivation and other challenges are, and what the particular problems, needs and opportunities are in those areas. The bundles of needs will be different in each area — perhaps schools, jobs and housing in one community; housing, health and addictions in another; or mainly migrant needs in another.

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Central government operating and service delivery models need to change and to be more in sync with the local level.
Image source: Unsplash

In principle, that kind of mapping operation shouldn’t be too challenging in a country of our size, with a population less than a quarter that of Mexico City. But what will be really challenging for understanding and addressing wellbeing issues in New Zealand is achieving the necessary reset in the relationship between central government, local government and community organisations.

The reset needs to include a recognition throughout central government of the resources and relationships that exist at local level, including information and expertise, for tackling wellbeing issues, and of the need to involve communities themselves. Councils know how to consult with their communities — they do it all the time. They understand how to work with their communities to develop ideas and solutions to problems.

Central government should also acknowledge and respond to the need to elevate capability and capacity in local government in order to achieve discernible improvements across all four wellbeing areas.

New roles and ways of working between central and local government

To get the best wellbeing outcomes for communities, there will need to be change in how policies get made and services get delivered to New Zealanders, including funding mechanisms. Decisions about resources and services need to be made closer to affected communities and local issues, while still allowing for necessary accountability back to taxpayers for outcomes important to New Zealand.

Some of this is explored in the Productivity Commission’s report. It’s not simply a matter of money — there needs to be substantial change in how central and local government and communities work together to systematically deliver better outcomes for New Zealanders. Issues and solutions to major problems need to take greater account of local contexts and be better informed by local knowledge and insight.


Cultural wellbeing in multicultural Aotearoa is about breaking down barriers caused by fear and misunderstanding.
Image source: Unsplash

Central government operating and service delivery models need to change and to be more in sync with the local level. In some cases there needs to be an honest transfer of the mandate and funding to develop and implement local plans to address local issues, with central government sometimes taking more of a supporting role — building local capability and sharing and disseminating evidence of best-practice approaches to local decision makers — rather than a controlling one.

There will also need to be recognition that change will take time. The support role from central government should include facilitating a change process, providing support for the building of local capability, and investment in the systems and platforms needed to support more devolved decision making and service delivery. Local councils and communities need to be given the time to develop new roles and ways of working.

This new way of doing things would enable our different layers of government to work better together to develop and deliver place-based, locally informed responses to wellbeing — from Kaitāia to Clyde. This is our best chance to improve the lives of all New Zealanders, especially the most vulnerable, and reverse what seems to be a continuing downward spiral of societal problems in our communities.

About the authors

Michael Mills

A public-policy expert and a Director of MartinJenkins, Michael adds considerable client value through his invaluable insights into the complex machinery of government.

As someone who has spent considerable time driving public-service reform from within but who is now working in the private sector, Michael understands better than most the obligations, interactions and tensions between public-sector bodies, private enterprise and the wider community. He is a public-policy expert who adds considerable client value through his invaluable insights into the complex machinery of government.

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Director Michael Mills

Philippa Bowron

Philippa is a local government innovation specialist, with a strong background in technology and communications, and public and corporate partnerships.

Philippa’s strengths are in leveraging technology to drive innovation, developing practical solutions and establishing functional partnerships across diverse organisations. She has a comprehensive understanding of local government, having spent seven years as Head of Innovation at Wellington City Council.

Philippa Bowron 0002 1 Philippa Bowron, Lead for Local Government

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