Saturday, October 6, 2018

When top-down solutions go bottom-up

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, October 4.)

It’s sad to see Chris Laidlaw’s career come to this.

A photo in The Dominion Post last week said it all. It was taken at a parliamentary select committee hearing where regional council representatives were called on to explain the multiple failings of the new Wellington bus system.

In Kevin Stent’s photo, Laidlaw, who as council chairman has had to soak up much of the abuse, looks brooding and resentful. His expression says he doesn’t need any more of this.

He might well be thinking, “I had a glittering career. Is this how it ends?”

He could be forgiven for harbouring bleak thoughts. Laidlaw has had a storied life: outstanding All Black halfback (he was rated one of the game’s greatest passers of the ball), courageous author (his book Mud in Your Eye led to him being ostracised by many in the rugby establishment), Rhodes Scholar, diplomat (he played a significant role behind the scenes in persuading South Africa to renounce apartheid), race relations conciliator, Labour MP (let’s not mention the taxi chits), broadcaster (he was Radio New Zealand’s Sunday-morning host for 13 years), and of course, regional councillor.

He’s one of several former Labour and Green MPs – another is his sister-in-law, Sue Kedgley – who have found a home in local government. 

I was tempted to insert the word “cosy” before “home” in that sentence because local government provides a normally comfortable late-life career. The pay’s not bad and regional councillors are mostly spared the close and fiercely critical scrutiny that city and district councils are subjected to.

All of which must have made the past couple of months particularly trying for Laidlaw. In my few encounters with him I’ve always found him personable, but I don’t think he’s a man to whom humility and contrition would come easily.

The bus furore was probably not what he was expecting, still less hoping for, when he became GWRC chairman. It’s not hard to detect a slightly petulant tone in his statements and a reluctance to acknowledge that the council cocked up spectacularly.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that Laidlaw is one of that school of social-democrat politicians who politically came of age in the idealistic 1960s and doggedly cling to a misplaced faith in central planning.

This is a model of government that imposes top-down solutions in the belief that bureaucrats and policy-makers know better than the punters who actually use the systems they devise.

Trouble is, the bureaucrats and theorists are often isolated in their own bubbles, unburdened by experience of how the real world works and what ordinary people want. We’re seeing this played out in Auckland too, where planners have created their own grotesque public transport fiasco.

I wonder if that’s the bigger issue here. As local government bureaucracies grow bigger and more centralised, there’s an increasing risk that they will get things wrong.

On paper, it often makes sense to have over-arching administrative structures rather than bitsy local councils all doing their own thing and protecting their own patches.

But the bigger a council gets, the more distant it become from the people it’s supposedly accountable to, as the Auckland experience shows. It tends to take on a life of its own. That’s why I’m still not convinced that a single council should replace the three existing ones in the Wairarapa, where I live.

The kindest thing that can be said for central planners and their political masters is that they usually start with the best of motives. But good intentions too easily morph into control-freak government by People Who Know Best.

The crux of the problem is that they expect the world to conform to their theoretical models rather than vice-versa. And when it all turns to custard they disappear down a rabbit-hole of butt-covering reviews and inquiries rather than simply admitting they cocked up and starting again from scratch.

I saw a classic man from Central Planning on TV3’s The Project last week. He was a transport planner – possibly the worst type – and he had the slightly crazed eyes of a true believer.

He was trying to convince a sceptical panel that Auckland needs a 30 kmh speed limit. Why? Because he thinks people should walk or cycle rather than drive cars, and if it takes a 30 kmh speed limit to force them out of their vehicles – well, so be it.

In other words, he was talking about compulsion by stealth. Never mind what people want.

Translate that attitude to Wellington and it becomes clear that if the bus system is a disaster, it's probably because the users don't know what's good for them. Clearly they must try harder to make it work.


Vaughan said...

I know nothing about Chris Laidlaw's recent experiences apart from what is written here, but Karl is right about his skill as a halfback.

The thing about rugby union is that those involved are in a process aimed at achieving something-- a victory over the opposition.

But my recent experience working with a bureaucracy, is that it seems to breed an attitude in quite a few people that following a process is the main thing. It is not about using that process to achieve anything.

For those I have seen operating, it seems enough just to get paid for going through the process but not aiming at achieving anything for the taxpayers who fund their salaries.

In rugby, it would be the equivalent of a player like Chris passing the ball to the first five who then proceeded to do nothing more than run on the spot.

What is the remedy? Perhaps some outsider to come in and say: "If your process is followed immaculately but you do not achieve a result, you will not be paid.In fact, you will be shown a red card."

Karl du Fresne said...

Thank you for that thoughtful and perceptive comment, Vaughan. I wonder if this is a result of HR departments taking organisational control with their emphasis on box-ticking as an end in itself.

hughvane said...

While you're wading the murky waters of local government and other bureaucracies, you might care to turn your journalistic attention to one David Caygill. Young Nat, jumped ship to join Labour, became Minister of Finance, Deputy Leader, etc, etc; and then, perhaps seeing the moving hand that wrote, jumped ship again, only sideways to a number of seat-warming jobs. His current position - well, one of them, brevity dictates - is as Chair of the Electricity Authority. Mr Caygill must be raking in the dollars, why, he was once thanked by Labour for accepting only $1500 per day for his attendance upon matters electrical. That was 18 years ago.

The major difference between Laidlaw and Caygill is public accountability, something the former does not appear to welcome. The latter however, hides behind thundering silence, avoiding controversy. The question remains however - does NZ get anything of value from his positions and decisions? It seems Greater Wellington has been seriously short-changed in that respect.

David said...

Is the taxi suppression order now lifted? I know everyone in Wellington knows all about it, but it was certainly suppressed for years and years. Russell Brown once even heavied me just over a private email to MediaWatch about it.

Wellington had a very good bus system, but Chris and his mate Paul Swain destroyed it. I intend never to use it again.

Graeme Peters said...

I think Brent Layton is chair of the Electricity Authority.

Mark Wahlberg said...

Had many a wild ride on public transport over the years and ended up in places I never intended to go.Though to be fair that was more to do with not understanding the complicated instructions posted for public consumption, which were usually defaced with the musing of semi literate people with genital fixations.
Personal transport, while expensive is more reliable than the public option and I dont have to surrender my seat for gender and or cultural expectations.

Over the years I have reinforced to my children one very simple message.I'll take the food out of their mouths before I stop feeding my gas guzzling V8's and surrender my mobility in the name of the public good.

Max Shierlaw said...

This fiasco has been developing for years. The real issue is that no one in the Regional Council has the required expertice in transport. It started in 2006 when the then Chief Executive got rid of a expert Transport GM through a restructure because he perceived him as a threat. The CE was recently appointed, so his fears were probably well grounded as he proved over the years to be well out of his depth. Councillors simply rubber stamp everything put before them and add nothing. In the days of Stuart Macaskill, there were some Councillors who had a good understanding of transport and they, together with the eminently qualified officials, ensured the transport system was well run and efficient. These days it is the blind leading the blind. Central Government must step in.