Tuesday, July 23, 2024

OAG councils’ consultation documents report released

The Office of the Auditor-General today presented its report on New Zealand councils’ 2021-31 long-term plan consultation documents to the House of Representatives.

The report Consulting matters: Our observations on the 2021-31 consultation documents provides the OAG’s observations on councils’ consultation documents.

“Effective consultation is critical to ensuring that councils develop the right long-term plan for their community,” the OAG said in a statement today.

“Councils need to provide their communities with reliable and clear information about the matters proposed for inclusion in the long-term plan so that their community can engage with and provide feedback on this.”

It said councils, as a whole, had confronted the challenges they face and, for the most part, produced clear consultation documents.

“This is no small achievement at the best of times. In the middle of a pandemic and in a sector focused on major reforms, this is even more significant.”

The OAG observed that most councils had used their consultation documents to have candid conversations with their communities about the issues they face and how they plan to respond.

“These conversations also mean being clear on the investment required to address those challenges.”

It said that while councils were free to decide what to put in their consultation documents, there were some mandatory requirements.

“This can result in long and information-heavy documents, which could be daunting for people to engage with.”

“Balancing effective consultation with effective legislative compliance is a challenge for councils.”

The OAG has recommended that the Department of Internal Affairs and the local government sector review the consultation requirements for long-term plans to ensure that the engagement process and content requirements of a consultation document remain fit for purpose.

The report also recognised an improvement in conversations between councils and their communities on climate change matters.

“For many communities, this is a complicated area with many potential consequences. It is good to see councils turning their minds to these issues, even if all the implications are not yet clear.”

The Office also issued an adverse audit opinion (see separate news article) and 10 qualified audit opinions on long-term plan consultation documents.

The types of issues councils consulted on in the 2021-31 consultation documents.

“It is the first time we have issued qualifications on consultation documents since they were introduced in 2015. In most cases, the qualification was limited to a disagreement or a limitation in scope about an aspect of a council’s consultation document or the underlying information on which it was based.”

“However, for the council that received an adverse audit opinion this meant, in our view, the council did not present a fit-for-purpose consultation document.

“This is because the document did not contain a credible plan to the challenges that the council faced. In our view, this defeats the purpose of the consultation document and limits the ability of that community to effectively engage with the council’s long-term plan.”

The OAG commended councils who used innovative approaches to engage with their communities on matters in their consultation documents, such as dedicated webpages on each matter or using social media to interact.

“In many of those cases, the consultation document has not been at the centre of this engagement. It might be timely for the Department of Internal Affairs, working with the local government sector, to consider how engagement on the content of a long-term plan happens and the role of the consultation document in that process.”

“Although consultation documents are intended for public consultation on significant matters facing the council or the community, councils also need to make several mandatory disclosures. This can result in a long and information-heavy document, which could be daunting for people to engage with. Balancing effective consultation with effective legislative compliance is a challenge for councils,” it said.

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