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Jarrod Coburn

The following presentation was given by Jarrod Coburn at the inaugural conference of ratepayers and residents' groups held in Nelson on the 10th of November 2018.   The full, downloadable - images embedded version is attached at the bottom of this page.



Community Governance

Aoteaora-Style

Jarrod Coburn MMS

Table of Contents

About The Author 2

Where Have We Come From 3

Disclaimer on Terminology 3

The Early Days 3

Changing Times 5

Body And Soul 6

Background of the Research 6

Findings of the Research 6

How do the purposes of New Zealand residents’ groups compare with the themes identified in the literature? 6

Are the constitutional purposes of New Zealand residents’ groups aligned with the purposes stated by their committee members? 9

Does the age of the organisation have an influence on its purpose? 11

Are there any significant differences in purpose – either constitutionally or stated by committee members – between residents’ groups in rural areas versus those in urban areas? 11

Does the purpose (either constitutional or stated) of residents’ associations in New Zealand differ dependent upon the region? 13

If so, is their interaction with local governmental agencies relevant? 13

Research Conclusions 14

Implications of this Research 15

Implications for the community governance sector 15

Implications for local government 16

Implications for central government 16

Invention of the Year: 3,500 B.C. (the Wheel… it’s been invented) 17

Conclusion 18

About The Author

Jarrod Coburn

My research, published as a thesis in late 2012, examined 582 New Zealand organisations. It set out to derive a set of purposes that residents’ groups perform and presents how their purposes differ between geosocial and political locality and over three distinct eras of community development. The thesis also examines the relationship between residents’ groups and councillors, council officers, district health board members and civil defence and seeks to uncover if the level of engagement (if any) has an effect on their overall raison d’etre. It concluded with a typology of New Zealand residents’ groups along with the key purposes of each type.

When I set out to examine this subject I was unprepared for the difficulty I would face. The problem was that I seemed to be the first person in the world to undertake research on this particular subject. That’s strange, because residents’ groups are ubiquitous in democratised nations: they are one of the Universe’s little certainties… where you have residents and local government you will have tension. When the tension gets great enough you get a group formed. Well, that was my early hypothesis.

So it’s not unreasonable to say that I undertook the first – but hopefully not the last – comprehensive piece of research on New Zealand residents’ groups. I hope that it can be of use to you going forward.



Where Have We Come From

Disclaimer on Terminology

There are many names used for residents’ groups with very little consistency applied. For example, the term progressive association is used internationally to describe groups with national reach who represent a repressed or developing demographic, yet in this country can be organisations with a similar structure or purpose to those who term themselves residents’ associations. However, there are residents’ associations in New Zealand who are entities set up as bodies corporate by property developers and who serve a legal function (in some cases required by local authorities). We also have community councils with similar roles to residents’ associations, not to be confused with safer community councils, which perform a completely different function. It is fair to conclude that – just as you can’t judge a book by its cover – you cannot judge a residents’ group solely by what it is called. I’ve chosen to assign the construct ‘residents’ group’ as a place-marker for what is a largely undefined phenomenon. If I’m referring to a specific organisation then I’ll use the name of the organisation or the term others have used to refer to it.

The Early Days

From the New Zealand historical record covering the late 19th century it is apparent that residents’ groups had their roots in direct involvement in the election of Councillors and lobbying on behalf of property owners. Residents’ groups stretch back at least to 1865 when a report made mention of resolutions the Christchurch Ratepayers’ Association would “pass in the Town Hall”. It was a time of ratepayers organising together to battle the authorities with a notice in the Daily Southern Cross newspaper calling for a meeting of the [Auckland] Ratepayer’s Association to “petition the General Assembly against passing the Water Loan Bill”. The Grey River Argus in 1875 reported on the perceived lack of success of the Wellington ratepayers’ association (“a sort of imitation of the Nelson Reform League”) due to a certain level of apathy of the ratepayers of that city.

Ratepayers’ groups seemed to be a treasure trove of salacious news. In 1876 the Evening Post made blatant accusations against a Mr E. T. Gillon of “misleading the ratepayers to the real state of the Corporation [City Council] affairs”. The issue was over the auditing of the Council’s finances and reported that it was “very desirable” that the upcoming meeting of the local ratepayers’ association be well attended. Gillon was a Wellington provincial councillor and – bizarrely – editor of the Evening Post newspaper at the time this report was published. At least nobody could argue about the editorial independence of newspapers in those days!

Early records of meetings from residents’ groups in New Zealand were reported in major metropolitan newspapers of the day. In 1866 the Daily Southern Cross mentioned that the Auckland Ratepayers’ Association meeting had discussed the urgent need to drain the Market Reserve to prevent the “ravages of typhus”, while the Evening Post carried a report in 1875 that the monthly meeting of the Wellington Ratepayers’ Protection Association was held with 11 people present. Discussion centred around the application of rating income and the issue of inequity, which is significant considering both remain major issues nearly 150 years later. Also of present-day relevance was the suggestion for implementing water meters and the safety of public areas.

A Star article in 1879 notes a general meeting of the Christchurch Ratepayers’ Association held in Manchester Street with 60 people in attendance. This is an interesting historical record, because it hints at the heritage of this type of organisation in New Zealand, noting the association had been established based on a similar society in the English town of Tunbridge Wells, which clearly points to the colonial and class-based roots of residents’ groups in New Zealand. The meeting focused on who would be put forward as nominees for upcoming City Council elections. This particular association (all men, let it be noted!) were made up of 221 land owners of the area, each of whom had a number of votes (790 in total) to elect the Council. However, the members stated they did not intend to lobby the Council, nor interfere with its operation, but to bring the “ratepayers together for the purpose of discussing public affairs”. Later discussion centred around the choosing of a Mayor and the “immorality” in the way elections were undertaken.

Of interest is the report that the members did not intend the association to “die a natural death” post-election, but rather continue a be a “useful organ for many purposes”, a template for many residents’ groups to come. Reference was also made to the work of the Tunbridge Wells association who had raised funds to provide things of benefit to their area but which could not be provided by the Council, such as a “very superior band of music”, a new pump-room and walkways.

Three days after that meeting another regional newspaper reported on George Grey’s visit to Canterbury and the elections underway there. It noted the formation of a ratepayers’ association who were “determined that the municipal affairs of Christchurch never again fall into the hands of the class who now go out of office”.

The earliest record of public use of the term residents’ association is an Evening Post (1899) article reporting the formation of a “Ratepayers’ and Residents’ Association for Kilbirnie Ward”. A residents’ group is still operational in that area today.

Residents’ groups feature prominently in the New Zealand media in modern times. Fairfax, NZ Herald, Scoop and Radio New Zealand records in the ten years leading up to the end of 2011 showed 6,883 reports that mentioned the terms “residents’ association”, “ratepayers’ association”, “progressive association”, “community council” and “residents’ group”. The reports included opposition to property developments, criticism of local authorities, calls for investigations and enquiries (particularly of the local government sector), and providing a forum for community comment (such as hosting candidate meetings) around local body elections. The number of mentions in this sample of the news media (on average 18 per week) over the first decade of the Century speaks to the high level of activity of these groups in New Zealand society.

In general, community has undergone stages of change in relation to social geopolitical changes at a global level and this has influenced neighbourhood associations (of which residents’ groups can be considered a sub-set). In the early days, nor were they allowed to vote. In any case, to vote in a local government election you needed to own property, so early residents' groups were landed gentlemen who came together to influence who got onto their local Council. The Property Perfection Act 1860, Municipal Corporations Act 1867 and Electoral Act 1893 changed much of that. Soon after, New Zealand boasted the first ever female Mayor in the British Empire!

Changing Times

It has been argued that in terms of community development in this country there are three distinct eras: 1935 – 1970, 1970-2002, and 2003 onward.


From the mid 1930s New Zealand had developed as a welfare state, with central government taking a hands-on role in community well-being.

One thing is certain: there will always be a handful of concerned citizens willing and able to form a residents’ group.

This model started to become less efficacious in the 1960s, which was “a decade of global cultural change that challenged the legitimacy of State actions on behalf of citizens – particularly as social change leader” and reflected in New Zealand in the Vietnam War protests, the feminist movement and an awakening of cultural independence by both Māori and Polynesian communities, leading to a line in the sand at 1970 when the country moved from developing community in a welfare-state paradigm to a socio-economic paradigm. This was the beginning of a change in local government’s involvement in community, with special community units of local authorities springing up in response to the “need to find local solutions to local issues”.

The third era started with the change to the system of local government in New Zealand at the end of 2002, been hailed as significant in terms of the interface between local authorities and community. One could rightly argue that another era of change has occurred since 2002: the transformation of our society and culture due to technology. Information is now more readily and easily available than ever before, the nature of journalism has shifted from traditional paper and video to online citizen journalism and social media. People are connected more than ever before - but not in the same ways as they used to be.

I think it’s important to note, at this point, how critical residents’ groups are to society and to community governance, when you reflect that from the late 19th century there were almost 4,000 local bodies in 1912. In 1989 reforms consolidated around 850 remaining organisations into just 86. In 2010 a ‘super-city’ council was established in Auckland. Now some of this is efficiency and some of it reflect the speed in which we now communicate and travel, but there is no doubt in my mind that the ideal of democracy has been ill-served through the centralisation of power.

There is already talk of the next era – where many jobs will be replaced by robotics and computers, where the liberal democracies that seemed so certain after the fall of facism and communism are starting to be rejected by ordinary citizens (think Brexit and Trump). An era of post-globalist nationalism. But one thing is certain: there will always be a handful of concerned citizens willing and able to form a residents’ group.

Body And Soul

Background of the Research

The research was structured in three parts:

  1. a review of the literature – both in New Zealand and overseas. This included an analysis of historical media records and developed 11 themes that related to the purpose of residents’ groups;

  2. an analysis of constitutional data – I read 588 constitutions, trust deeds and rules of incorporation in total and ascertained whether the purposes stated fitted within the 11 themes, or something else. From this I discovered five additional themes;

  3. the constitutional analysis also allowed me to develop a typology – a way to categorise residents’ groups. I developed six such categories;

  4. the third part involved surveying all New Zealand residents’ groups. I received a 46% response rate (which is a very impressive figure for a postal survey). I received 582 useable responses from 266 groups. Whilst the response was very good, and the percentage of the organisations responding compared to the total population of groups was high, the population itself is small. This meant reliability of the figures couldn’t be calculated in the normal manner. My statistical analysis resulted in a 99% confidence level with a margin of error of +/-2.26%;

  5. it is important to note that survey forms were provided to each member of a residents’ group’s board – so responses that were received were not just a single voice for each organisation. These responses were analysed individually but also combined across each organisation.

My research showed 12% of residents' groups existing at the begging of this decade were formed prior to 1970, 29% were started between 1970 and 2002 and almost 60% of groups were formed after changes to the Local Government Act in 2002. Whilst most were still focused on community and a sense of place, some also served demographic communities (such as in rest homes, or ethnicities) and some were started by commercial developers in response to requirements from Councils (bodies corporate).

Findings of the Research

How do the purposes of New Zealand residents’ groups compare with the themes identified in the literature?

An analysis of the constitutions supported all bar one of the themes of the literature review. The theme that was not supported by the constitutions was “Negative behaviour that impacts on people in a community”. This was expected, as it is not in the interest of these organisations to openly identify their intention to undertake activity that could damage their community, nor is it likely that any such group would aim to do such a thing.

In general there was a close fit to the literature. Five additional purposes were identified as well, resulting in a total of 15 purpose-themes:

  • Maintaining transparency and accountability of government agencies

  • A source of local community knowledge

  • Protecting or promoting a sense of place

  • Improving or protecting the environment

  • Critiquing or opposing activities of local or central government

  • Representing the interests of a specific demographic group

  • Part of the establishment (i.e. an agent of the government)

  • Charitable activities

  • As a platform for political activity

  • Promoting the interests of local people

  • Social capital

  • Safeguard / promote community wellbeing

  • Source of inspiration or leadership

  • Body corporate

  • Own / operate community asset(s)

The five purposes not previously identified in the analysis of the literature related to improving social capital, safeguarding community wellbeing, being a source of inspiration or leadership, being a body corporate for the purpose of managing a residential development and owning/operating community assets. It is important to note that these activities were all addressed in the literature somewhere, but they were not included as they did not – in my analysis – feature to the point where they ‘stood out’ enough to contribute to a theme of their own.

The predominant purposes identified by the respondents revolve around promoting the interests of local people (91%), being a source of community knowledge (90%), protecting or promoting a sense of place (90%) and improving or protecting the environment (88%). Very few identified as being a part of the establishment (5%) but a quarter indicated they had a charitable purpose.

Purpose-themes identified in the survey (chart)

Purpose-themes identified in the survey (detail)

Type

Characteristics

Occurrence

Demographic

  • Name often indicates a specific demographic (e.g. Auckland Somali Community Association);

  • Purpose identifies serving a specific demographic.

10

Demographic Hybrid

  • A sub-set of the ‘Demographic’ type;

  • The demographic community is also an area-based community (e.g. a retirement village).

5

Body Corporate

  • Purpose is asset focused;

  • Purpose includes promulgation of rules for members;

  • Maps, legal definitions and other technical information included as part of constitution.

78

Body Corporate Hybrid

  • A sub-set of the ‘Body Corporate’ type;

  • In addition has a focus on people (welfare, interests, etc.) and/or;

  • Has a focus on utilisation of the land for a communal good (e.g. Mataka Residents’ Association operates the communal land as a farm for the benefit of members), and/or;

  • Provides an essential service (such as water reticulation) to financial members of an organisation.

23

Community

  • Organisation covers a geographic community, reflected in the name of a suburb/town (Newlands Paparangi Progressive Association) or an area (Inner City East Neighbourhood Group);

  • Area is scalable, can be small (a street: Jacksons Road Residents’ Association) or large (a city: Dunedin Ratepayers’ and Householders Association);

  • Purpose often includes promoting the interest of local people;

  • Purpose often includes improving community wellbeing;

  • Purpose often includes enhancing the physical environment;

  • Is not either of the two body corporate or the demographic categories.

434

Community Hybrid

  • A sub-set of the ‘Community’ type;

  • Communally owns an asset that: -

    • is used as a focus for the geographic community (e.g. Parakao Hall Society), or;

    • is an essential service (such as a town water supply or postal service) to a community.

32





Are the constitutional purposes of New Zealand residents’ groups aligned with the purposes stated by their committee members?

Committee members were also asked to indicate their organisation’s purpose in an open question Table 5.3 presents the responses to this question, which was quantified using the same content-analysis technique used for the constitutional data. Note the additional purpose-themes that were not given as an option in SurQ13 (highlighted).

Purpose Themes: What board members said vs. stated purposes

Survey

Constitutions

No.

%

No.

%

Maintaining transparency and accountability of government agencies

39

15%

29

11%

A source of local community knowledge

58

22%

84

32%

Protecting or promoting a sense of place

49

18%

62

23%

Improving or protecting the environment

112

42%

139

52%

Critiquing or opposing activities of local or central government

9

3%

20

8%

Representing the interests of a specific demographic group

1

0%

3

1%

Part of the establishment (i.e. an agent of the government)

15

6%

34

13%

Charitable activities

1

0%

8

3%

As a platform for political activity

38

14%

22

8%

Promoting the interests of local people

168

63%

194

73%

Develop social capital

52

20%

49

18%

Safeguard /improve community wellbeing

71

27%

110

41%

Source of inspiration or leadership

64

24%

87

33%

Body corporate

12

5%

17

6%

Own / operate community asset(s)

50

19%

90

34%

Constitutional purposes compared with open question







Does the age of the organisation have an influence on its purpose?

Splitting the groups into these three eras highlights the increasing number of bodies corporate being styled as residents’ groups since 2003, possibly due to the reformation of local government in 2002. The groups owning or managing assets fell in the middle period but recovered, due to the proliferation of bodies corporate. The number of organisations that have a constitutional purpose of critiquing or opposing government, or ensuring transparency, grew dramatically in the 1970-2002 period, although the both figures dropped after that date. This could be explained by the introduction of the Charities Act 2005, which created stricter criteria for groups registering as charities. Also in decline are the occurrence of promoting the interest of local people, and protecting or enhancing the environment. As might be expected from the literature, sense of place as a purpose has become more noticeable post 1975 along with a focus on leadership.

Constitutional purpose by discrete time period

Are there any significant differences in purpose – either constitutionally or stated by committee members – between residents’ groups in rural areas versus those in urban areas?

There was very little difference between urban and rural-based residents’ groups based on their constitutions. Rural-based residents’ groups tended to more often state as a purpose being a source of local knowledge, leadership, critiquing government and the general wellbeing of community.



Comparison of constitutional data based on level of urbanity

Looking at the stated purposes shows significantly more rural respondents believed their groups had more of a focus on the physical environment and interests of local people. This is in keeping with an expectation that rural areas preserve the more traditional ways of life.

Interestingly, even though roughly a third of residents’ groups state in their constitution that they own or manage assets, less respondents overall responded with this purpose, with a marked difference in the urban responses. This could suggest a divesting of assets or management responsibility of assets by residents’ groups over time.



Comparison of stated purpose based on level of urbanity

Does the purpose (either constitutional or stated) of residents’ associations in New Zealand differ dependent upon the region?

A full regional analysis was not possible, due in part to the distribution of the residents’ groups in the scope of the research and in part to the response rate from differing parts of the country. Having said that there are still some learnings to take onboard, that certainly resonated with me.

Canterbury stands out in many instances with three quarters of the organisations citing protection of local interest as a purpose, as well as sharing a high focus on sense of place along with Wellington.

In the provinces Tasman stands out as having a high focus on wellbeing and a low focus on management/ownership of community assets. Bay of Plenty residents’ groups had no constitutional purposes focused on government transparency and accountability, while almost a third of Marlborough groups had a ‘part of the establishment’ purpose. Examples of this purpose includes working with Police to reduce crime, cooperating with Councils for the betterment of the community, and working in partnership with government agencies such as the Department of Conservation. Northland groups had the highest rate of bodies corporate.

If so, is their interaction with local governmental agencies relevant?

Survey participants were asked to indicate their level of engagement with their regional and city/district council on a scale between 1 (low) and 5 (high). The results are divided into three parts: Unitary Council, City/District Council and Regional Council. Respondents within Unitary Council boundaries were purposely given the same answer choices in the questions (e.g. asked to rank both City/District and Regional Councils, with no mention of a Unitary Council) and this was brought to my attention a number of times by annotated comments on the survey forms from the respondents.

Respondents reported a 22% higher level of engagement with their City/District Council than their Regional Council. Those residents’ groups with Unitary Councils also reporting a fairly high level of engagement.

Level of engagement with local authority

This result was not unexpected. The same question asked of delegates at the 2010 Residents’ Associations Conference in Wellington resulted in similar results with City/District Council scoring an average of 3.6 and Regional Councils scoring 2.2.

Residents’ group committee members were asked to indicate the frequency of contact they had with the following five local state agents:

  • District Health Board members

  • Civil defence officers/manager

  • Community Board members

  • Council officers

  • Local Councillors

A major purpose across the board for residents’ groups was promoting the interests of local people.

Residents’ groups reported the lowest frequency of interaction with District Health Boards, with 75% reporting no contact and only 4% reporting less-than-yearly contact. Civil defence officials also had a low level of contact: 51% of residents’ groups reported no engagement with civil defence while a third reported they had contact on a yearly basis. There were 76 groups responding who had a Community Board in their area (Auckland’s ‘Local Boards’ were not included, as they have a slightly different role and make-up than Community Boards). Generally the contact level was high, with almost half (49%) of groups reporting monthly contact with their Community Board and 21% in touch weekly. This was similar to contact with council officers: 51% of groups reported being in touch with a council officer on a monthly basis, while 15% were in touch weekly.

In summary it seems that residents’ groups simply are who they are, with little difference between the groups in urban and rural areas. Yes, they have changed over time with a reduction in charitable purposes and an increase in political ones, and the advent of a new body corporate-type emerging over the past 10 years. There are some differences at the regional level but these are minor and in many cases logical (Wellington’s unique character and Canterbury’s English identity and subsequent devastation linking to sense of place, for example).

Nor does the level of contact or engagement with local governmental agencies seem to make a large difference in purpose. For the most part they are concerned about the interests of local people, what goes on with the physical environment and many aspects around community such as sense of place, social capital and general wellbeing.

Research Conclusions

A major purpose across the board for residents’ groups was promoting the interests of local people (‘giving a voice’ to- or ‘representing’ local people, providing a ‘link’ between the community/member and government or other organisations, ‘assisting’ residents to deal with government). This was evidenced in each of the three types, the regions, the urbanity and the age.

Improving or protecting the environment, which featured prominently for many residents’ groups in New Zealand. This purpose addressed not just the natural environment but all the physical environment, including heritage. It included such things as ‘general advancement’, ‘enhancement’, ‘development’ or ‘improvement’ of an area, and creating a ‘good place to live’.

Safeguard / improve community wellbeing was not identified as a purpose theme in the literature review but emerged as a popular purpose through the survey, especially with community-type residents’ groups. Examples of this included anything that improves the economic, social, recreational or cultural attributes of a community, improving the ‘quality of life’ and ‘welfare’ of residents’, supporting specific measures such as ‘civil defence’, ‘neighbourhood support’. Groups also undertook ‘community projects’ and sought to improve ‘sustainability’.

A final key purpose is being a source of local community knowledge. This not only means holding knowledge on behalf of a community, but also ‘notifying’ of new things affecting the community, ‘being a watchdog’, providing ‘education’, ‘raising awareness of local issues’ and having an ‘involvement in local affairs.

Perhaps most surprisingly (and pleasing) is that residents’ groups walk the talk, their committee members showing they know their organisations well.

Implications of this Research

Implications for the community governance sector

The transparency and accountability of government is well evidenced in the historical record (this was a key reason why such groups were started) and can be argued to be a valid function of community governance.

Little has been specifically written on residents’ groups in New Zealand, yet they have played a significant part in communities for almost one and a half centuries. I argue that if local authorities are the heart of community governance then community-type residents’ groups are its soul: as a source of knowledge and leadership, protecting and preserving the physical environment, promoting the interests of local people and safeguarding their general wellbeing.

Such groups operate in isolation, with many hours of volunteer effort being expended on achieving their lofty ideals. A major theory underpinning community – that of social capital – does not seem to apply to residents’ groups as a whole, as it is rare for these organisations to be in contact with other residents’ groups, even if they are neighbours. Yet there are common bonds that bind community residents’ groups together and where there is commonality there is surely opportunity to work smarter and exploit synergy.

I hope this research assist residents’ groups to reflect on their constitutional purposes and check they are in keeping with the expectations of their committee members and the needs of their communities. It will also aid people establishing new groups by informing them when setting their objectives and will provide residents’ groups as a whole with an identity that can be debated, tested or adopted.

One of the findings of this research is the inconsistency between community-type residents’ groups. While diversity is to be celebrated in keeping with the concept of ‘sense of place’ and the importance of that to humans, a modicum of consistency in this sector might create a smoother interface between the groups and the communities they serve. An example is the purpose of critiquing or opposing government: some groups undertake this function yet despite the ideals and importance of civil society, it might be that such groups detract from serving the community’s best interests by focusing on adversarial techniques rather than community development. On the other hand the transparency and accountability of government is well evidenced in the historical record (this was a key reason why such groups were started) and can be argued to be a valid function of community governance, yet many groups did not indicate this as one of their purposes. I’m not advocating for any one particular purpose, but a discussion is encouraged across the community halls and meeting rooms of New Zealand about good practice and commonality, about who residents’ groups exist for and how communities benefit from them.

Implications for local government

Local government plays an important role in the governance of communities, though there is a subtle difference between local governance and community governance: the latter arguably more about self-governance than being governed. Sadly, community governance is a term that the local government sector has appropriated… it is well beyond time for the community to take it back!

Central government could benefit from developing relationships with residents’ groups with regard to the welfare and wellbeing of community.

Perhaps the biggest implication for councils is the opportunity for engagement between civil defence staff and all types of residents’ groups. It has been shown that residents’ groups exist primarily to protect and promote the interests of their community members as well as safeguarding general wellbeing, so it seems a viable proposition that their links into their communities are utilised for the purpose of ‘building a resilient New Zealand’.

Regional local authorities could also benefit by putting a greater focus on engaging with residents’ groups, who are holders of local knowledge and as such can be ‘eyes and ears’ for agencies that are an additional step away from the communities they serve, particularly considering both regional councils and community residents’ groups share a common purpose of protecting environment.

Implications for central government

This research shows central government could benefit from developing relationships with residents’ groups with regard to the welfare and wellbeing of community, and through gaining and disseminating information. A clear example are the opportunities for District Health Boards to utilise residents’ groups as a point of contact for communities of place or shared experience (e.g. senior citizens, ethnic groups).

The presentation of a typology of residents’ groups could also assist those mechanisms of government that further develop understanding of community, such as Statistics New Zealand, the Department of Internal Affairs Local Government Operations or the Office of the Community and Voluntary Sector.

Invention of the Year: 3,500 B.C. (the Wheel… it’s been invented)

My experience of residents’ groups in this country is that they are independent, individual and unconnected. Often they are born in response to an immediate need yet once that need is satisfied they remain. These organisations look inward at what is happening to their communities rather than to the wider political or economic environment. I can almost guarantee that whenever I speak with a committee member of a residents’ group I will hear one of two frustrations emerge: that they are overworked, and that New Zealanders are apathetic. Yet despite the hard work and frustration of the volunteers involved in them, we have over a thousand of these organisations in this country and they represent an unbroken record of service stretching back almost one and a half centuries.

In my experience many organs of the State are nervous about working with residents’ groups, and why wouldn’t they be? These groups are alien to many of New Zealanders. So little is known about them and yet they still manage to consistently get themselves mentioned in the news media. They exist – this is known – but why they exist and what purpose or intent they are pursuing is a mystery to many. This research will aid the sector by helping people to better understand what a residents’ group is and what it does. It will aid the individuals who work on committees of residents’ groups to understand that they are part of a wider community that may share some common aims and objectives. It will aid central and local government officials to better grasp the raison d’etre of these mysterious organisations. And – hopefully – it will encourage others to take an academic interest in the soul of New Zealand’s community governance sector.

What residents’ groups have that local and central government doesn’t have is social capital. What government has that people don’t have is time. Therefore, you need to utilise your time effectively. Don’t reinvent the wheel over and over. Don’t be seduced into the idea that you need to follow anyone’s rules, either: there are laws, regulations and policies but a lot of what councils make communities do is just whim.

Set your own agenda. Gain a mandate. Support your plans with well-executed research. Community governance requires a good deal of discipline and responsibility. Don’t be tempted into cutting corners, you’ll only get caught out later on.

Use the media to your advantage but don’t fall into the trap of vomitus extremus. Newspapers and other media love a scandal and they will publish what you say if it is scandalous enough. But here are two things you need to consider before making a public statement:

  1. Am I contravening Part 1 of the Defamation Act 1992?

  2. Am I going to proven wrong, and therefore a complete muppet, after the paper has done its research?

The reason you can never win when you take city hall head-on is that they have all the time in the world. Residents come and go, bureaucracy lasts forever.

Be mindful of your mission and stick to it! You need to play the long-game. You need to build a mandate because that is the first thing you will always be attacked on. You need to take a brutal, realistic point of view and see yourself as others see you. Residents’ groups can be very scary: they can scare off potential volunteers by coming across as raving conspiracy theorists. It doesn’t matter if you are right… people want a cause, true, but they also want a level of sanity along with it.

Conclusion

There is a lot of strength in the community governance sector in New Zealand. This sector represents a diverse array of people that serve their communities in a number of ways. Almost all are volunteers, many share a strong sense of natural justice.

Often aspirations go unheeded simply because they are never exposed.

It is good, in a democracy, to have tensions between government and the people. It is what prevents too much power being invested in individual hands. Such tensions promote change, create discussion and foment gentle revolutions of thought.

Local government has been leery of residents’ groups for decades. The issue doesn’t lie at the governance (Councillor) level, nor even at the level of the grass-roots council employee. In my experience the people most afraid of residents’ groups are at senior management band. Councils are slow, ponderous entities and they can’t react quickly to new ideas or challenges. Sadly, many councils don’t have a strong link into their communities so often shun anything that doesn’t fit their world-view. There is a slavish belief that the Long Term Plan (LTP) process is effective. In some cases, such as investment in infrastructure, this might be so. But rarely does an LTP mirror the aspirations of a community. Often, such aspirations go unheeded simply because they are never exposed.

Residents’ groups have the power to delve into their communities and produce evidence-based research that truly represents the values and wishes of people. Local government has the power to deliver on those values and wishes. If councils trusted residents’ groups then what amazing things could be possible?!

The challenge is to win that trust.

Here are some ways not to win that trust:

  • Using the media to bash the council

  • Personal attacks on individual staff

  • Plotting with Councillors (this is true – they have no power and are seen by council staff as barriers to doing things)

  • Saying that you represent a community when you don’t

  • Being unorganised, ill-disciplined or generally lazy in your thinking and actions

If you want to win trust you could:

  • Build strong networks in your community. Do you even know who all the local groups are and what they do? Do you meet with these people on a regular basis, or do you sit around an empty hall once a month waiting for them to come to you?

  • Learn about effective community development and incorporate principles of that into your organisation.

  • Undertake solid research. Find out about your community. Who lives there? Where do they work? Who is home during the day? What are their needs, desires, values?

  • Make a plan for change. Don’t just tell the council what your community wants, make it happen yourselves. Pick a goal and go for it. If you can get some runs on the board then council staff are more likely to want to work with you.

  • Establish a mandate. If you can prove that you truly speak on behalf of your community on a subject then you will have your local council’s attention.

  • Join together and form a national body – one that can provide a charter that all groups can follow. Prove that you can stick to your charter… it might take five years, it might take ten, but eventually you will build up enough credibility that central government might start consulting with you in a meaningful way.

  • Be honest to yourselves and others. Don’t tilt at windmills. The council isn’t your enemy, it’s just a mindless and uncaring machine. It will only respond to reason and logic and evidence, and only then if you have leverage. Listen to yourself regularly and if you are finding that people are coming along to one meeting then never turning up again you probably have an image problem. If you are truly doing this for the good of the community then you need to put the community ahead of your own personal ambition and desires.

Jarrod Coburn MMS MNZIM

November 2018

© Jarrod Coburn (2018)

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Ratepayers and Residents,
Nov 14, 2018, 7:27 PM
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Ratepayers and Residents,
Nov 14, 2018, 7:29 PM