Friday, March 7, 2008

Communication With Your Council.

Another column I wrote for a local community paper.
One of the biggest enigmas about the Far North District Council is how it can spend so much energy, and resources, on “consultation processes” and yet as most candidates at the recent elections would agree, it is verry poorly rated by the public on the issue of communication.
Only last week I met with one of the council survivors who was still talking about how how unfair it was that the council was seen so negatively and what was needed was a “good news” approach in the council’s press releases.
Yeah right. This council has in recent years spent enormous resources on commmunity plan consultation, large scale touring buses with special uniforms, identity badges, conductng special community meetings. It has also conducted polls via professional telphone contractors and by mailouts associated with rate demands.
The council has employed staff to approach community groups and guide them toward developing community plans. And there is more.
In recent years it has employed a number of journalists and press relations officers, and invested in newspaper columns and a couple of websites to promote council activities, and structures.
Incidentally the ratepayer has also contributed extensively to a serious cult surrounding the previous mayor, not only through those columns and websites but also via large colour posters in library/service centres and other public places, and included at every opportunity lots of fresh coloured photographs of elected people in every possible publication.
As far as I am aware the claim during the election that the five volume community plan has cost a million bucks was never challenged or denied.
So what is the problem that despite all these efforts the public insist they are not properly consulted ?
Well it would seem a lot of effort has gone into providing information, and when the public notice processes and the publishing of roading and other engineering projects are taken into account, there would seem to be if anything a surplus of data on council activties and plans.
But there are of course at least two parties involved in any aspect of communication and there is some doubt whether the council was genuinely interested in information from the other direction.
. That lack of give and take and apparent reluctance to change plans, following consultation, contributed to that doubt.
This in part explains such puzzles, as the Hokianga wharf improvements which seemed to upset a hell of a lot more locals than it pleased, and certainly Paihia developments and parking arrangements always seem to disturb those it is meant to serve, and perhaps the most obvious example of all was the Kerikeri green area design, including scltpture and loss of rugby field, which could have been the single most lethal factor in the annihilation the ex-mayor experienced at the election.
So what is the lesson in all this?
I think primarily the council must see media officers as employees serving the requirements of those seeking information, mostly reporters, not as providing spin for the enhancement of the council.
Secondly, community discussion of any proposal must involve practical managers prepared to take on board the issues of public concern, raised during the consultation.
And thirdly, the elected people must take back the responsibility to talk to the public on matters under dispute, rather than hide behind closed doors while public relations officers take on the news management, which more than any other factor will generate an atmosphere of paranoia and defensiveness.
Finally, when there is a genuine element of protest and hostility emanating from the community, the response should be a genuine referendum, not a commercailly conducted poll. After the polling debacle during the recent election, it must be quite clear that such a process has a record in this district of absolute failure.

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