Transparency is easy to say but when it comes to actually enacting what it means, councils never seem to get it right.
At least in the minds of many of their ratepayers, the very people who decided their fate at the previous local body elections. What they want is open dialogue on every issue. They are not the least bit interested in being told that some decisions need to be made under the cloak of privacy because the subject matter demands it. Or because the rights of individuals or organisations involved in the particular conversation might need to be protected. To them that is just a convenient way of councils avoiding public scrutiny, pure and simple. Pretty much a sham in other words.
And then there are workshops, literally dozens of them in each 12-month circle. Try telling those on the outside looking in that they are not just another way invented by councils to keep the masses from knowing what is happening behind closed doors.
Try explaining to them too that the vast majority of workshops are either a way of inducting new councillors, in particular, into the nuances of council or of providing important background information on matters that will be discussed in public further down the track. No, they won’t buy into that either, rather it has to be some sort of plot to undermine “the people.”
I readily concede that there are occasions when workshops could be held in the public domain …. and aren’t. And while most of them would probably draw an attendance of zilch if they were in public at least that opportunity should be provided. That is a work in progress but I predict there will be more MDC workshops streamed online as this triennium goes forward.
The myriad of social media channels available these days does, of course, mean that councils have the ability to communicate their day-to-day activities more readily than they did even five years ago.
Here too though transparency isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s a matter of ensuring what is revealed is 100 per cent accurate and at the same time not open to speculation. Which, frankly, is never an easy trick to pull off.
The fact is social media is tailormade for rumours and they can be mighty hard to dispel once they are flying around. The temptation is simply to say nothing, rather than run the risk of having to ward off crazy comments from observers who love playing the guessing game.
Even when transparency is about as good as it can possibly get the doubters remain. Take the Masterton council’s consultation on the proposed Lansdowne to Kuripuni cycleway as an example.
Council went to great lengths to ensure that anybody with even the slightest interest in this project had the opportunity to have their say. Apart from the usual press releases and social media promotion, there were displays in both the library and the council’s customer service centre, public gatherings at Chanel College and the Wairarapa netball courts, consultation documents and submission forms dropped into the mainboxes of affected residents, visits to schools and businesses on both the proposed and alternative routes and contact made with Fire and Emergency and Wellington Free Ambulance to get their views.
There were still those who considered themselves overlooked.
The consultation on our annual plan was a similar story. Both councillors and council staff went out of their way to promote what was part of that plan and what it would mean in terms of a rates increase a little further down the line but again there were people who felt the opportunity to be involved had been compromised.
Transparency is a crucial part of council life, perhaps even the most crucial if you believe, as I do, that we have an absolute duty to keep our people informed.
However, it often comes with caveats and you have to trust there are good and valid reasons why certain stuff is being hidden from you.
In other words, cynics and sceptics need not apply!