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Thursday, 29 November 2007

THE AUCKLAND CITY MACHINE

There are many good people working in vast army of the Auckland City
Council, but its overall character, set by a few powerful people in the
Council and the bureaucracy, is obvious to everyone except them. The good
people do what they can and say what they can, but The Machine rolls on as
it always has.

We, the people and their Community Boards, can even point out clear
discrepancies between what the law requires, sometimes the Council's own
laws, but The Machine does what it wants.

For example, the Local Government Act 2002 says councils are bound by
standing orders, the rules laid down for the conduct of council and board
meetings, and Auckland's standing orders say the same. One dictum is that
the Chief Executive Officer (usually via delegation of course) shall
'prepare' (standing order 2.3.1) and 'give to each [member]' (1.16.2) the
agenda set down for meetings. But at the Community Board's informal meeting
a couple of weeks before we were sworn in we were informed in writing that
he 'determines' the agenda. We noticed, and protested vigorously, as did
other Boards, but that was what was out at our swearing-in. It is used to
suppress or reshape anything not to The Machine's liking.

The only metal from which that very convenient mechanism could be forged is
a deliberate misreading of 2.16.2, which says, 'The Mayor or Chairperson may
direct the Chief Executive Officer to refuse to accept any notice of motion
which is: [among other things] contains [sic] an ambiguity or a statement of
fact or opinion which cannot properly form part of an effective resolution,
and where the mover has declined to comply with such requirements as the
Chief Executive may make.' Only if you read that quickly, ignoring the 'and'
in the phrase 'and where the mover has declined...', could you create
'determines' out of thin air.

That device was used before the Community Board meeting on the 21st by
'Democracy Services' staff to kill sixteen out of seventeen notices of
motion, despite the fact that under standing orders motions must be killed
or carried in an open, transparent, democratic meeting. Bureaucracy has no
right to crush democracy.

Other convenient devices are the usual: 'correct process', delaying tactics,
watering down, starving you of time, swamping you with process, etc. Then
there are the constant attempts to curb communication with all but a few
council officers. As a private citizen you may talk to any of them, but if
you do it when you represent every citizen you run the risk of being scolded
like naughty child. So much for freedom of speech.

At every point The Machine leans hard on democracy. In other places, such as
Christchurch, Waitakere and Thames-Coromandel, Community Boards are valued
and given meaningful powers (see their delegations on the Internet). They
are a grass-roots democracy, part of their local government structure, with
emphasis on local.

But in Auckland they are marginalised and treated with polite, patronising
contempt, to such an extent that they have to be seen as a PR exercise. A
few million dollars worth of a paint labelled 'democracy' is sprayed over
the cold, hard metal of The Machine. Boards get a small bag of lollies to
dole out to their grateful communities--at less cost than the mechanism
installed 'to serve and support' them--and that's about it. A lot of process
and little substance.

The only way for a Community Board under Auckland to have much effect is to
play the game as set up, and therefore to concentrate on being a kind of
anti-PR, a tall soapbox--a platform for fearlessly speaking up. Not quite
the representative and advocacy role that the Local Government Act 2002 had
in mind for it, but the best that can be done. Boards' deliberations and
resolutions cannot be much more than public rallying cries, because their
authority and effectiveness, even being on the agenda, is determined wholly
by The Machine.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

BUBBLE, BUBBLE, MAIL TROUBLE

Before I became a member of the Waiheke Community Board I knew that the Auckland City Council was not the most efficient and competent organisation in human history. I soon had confirmation of that from the lips of David Rankin, its CEO. In his speech at the induction seminar he told us that he had been in the job eighteen years. A few minutes later he also told us that in many respects the performance of his organisation was only mediocre. But I did not expect it to be inept in such a fundamental thing as sending mail. I was also ever so slightly surprised that it did not want to get it right.

In case you know little or nothing about computers, I should first explain that when information is stored in one it can be done in many ways, and that those different 'formats' consume vastly different amounts of space. For instance, if you wanted to store '1234567890' you could do it exactly like that, which would obviously take up just ten units of memory--ten 'characters' as they are usually called (or ten 'bytes' if you like being really technical). But if you stored the same string of numbers out of a word-processing program like Microsoft Word, you would consume about 35,000 characters, even 300,000. Or, if you took a picture of the page on which the same ten numbers were printed, using a machine called a scanner, you would consume 3 million characters or more.

If you emailed those three examples over the Internet using an ordinary phone line running at the fastest speed that Telecom guarantees for 90% of NZ, it would take a split second to send the 10 characters, about a second to send the 35,000, and 20 minutes to send the 3 million.

If you then went mad and scanned in a sixteen-page document, you could easily consume 50 million characters. That would obviously take so long to email--even if some kind chap went out and oiled the phone lines to make them run faster--that it would be pointless trying.

Therefore any competent organisation in the 21st century should make sure it uses the smallest and most efficient formats when emailing documents, and its staff should all be trained accordingly. Especially if it comes under the Local Government Act 2002, which in section 14 tells it to be efficient.

So I was astounded, flabbergasted, gobsmacked and thrombobulated to find that the Auckland City Council likes to use the biggest and most inefficient format for emailing documents--i.e., the scanned one. It even makes sure of that by printing them out then scanning them in.

It therefore has many documents so enormous that it cannot email them, because people might have grown old and died and moved to the cemetery before they got there. So what does it do? Easy. It only emails an abbreviated version of part of them (and even that eats millions of characters), then it gets the rest to you by courier a day or two later. Courier! Not even fast post.

When I politely asked Auckland to use a small format it had a management meeting and decided not to. 'Our current process for sending mail attachments will not be altered. I appreciate this may cause you inconvenience, however this is the chosen method by the organisation at this stage.'

Please don't worry about it though. Take comfort from the fact that the Auckland City Council is stunningly efficient at one thing. Spending your rates to the hilt. You can be absolutely sure that there will be nothing left of them at the end of the year, and that next year even more will be demanded. Every year it will always achieve 100% efficiency in spending every cent. So we shall forgive the little matter of the mail. Couriers need the work. And cemeteries.