Having the right debate through consultation

Asset management, consultation, and accountability.

To ensure that choices are well informed and balance the needs, wants, and expectations of stakeholders, it is important for consultation to be effective. This means local authorities having the right debate with their communities.

In this chapter, we consider how widespread specific consultation on infrastructure-related issues was and some of the approaches that different councils took.

How widespread was infrastructure among the specific consultation issues?

A local authority’s infrastructure network is made up of the following asset groups:

  • water supply;
  • wastewater;
  • stormwater;
  • roading/transportation; and
  • flood protection (regional/unitary councils)

In addition to core infrastructure, local authorities own and operate a wide range of other types of assets, including corporate properties, community facilities (such as community halls, libraries, museums), and recreation facilities (such as swimming pools, recreation centres, sports fields).

Audit New Zealand reviewed the consultation documents of 62 local authorities as part of our audits of the 2021-31 LTPs. Consultation documents varied widely in their length, format, and issues covered:

  • The 62 consultation documents we audited averaged just over 44 pages, but this ranged from 16 pages to over 140.
  • The average number of specific consultation issues was just over four, but again this ranged widely from councils asking one question to those raising 10 or more issues.
  • Fifty-five percent or 34 of the 62 consultation documents we reviewed specifically consulted on infrastructure-related issues.

From our analysis, local authorities fell into three groups:

  • those identifying infrastructure generally, particular infrastructure types (say roading), or individual infrastructure projects as specific consultation issues;
  • those who emphasised infrastructure and were clear that investing in it is vital but chose not to highlight it as a specific consultation issue; and
  • those who did not emphasise infrastructure, albeit their consultation documents still allowed for the community to provide feedback on infrastructural issues in response to the infrastructure strategy, forecasts of capital expenditure, and other information.

We grouped and categorised consultation issues across the 62 local authorities we audited and assessed the frequency with which issues were specifically raised.

Consultation about core infrastructure represented the second (transport) and sixth (water services) most commonly raised issues:

  • The most frequently raised consultation issues were on community services and facilities – raised 96 times across the 62 local authorities, with some consultation documents raising more than one community services issue.
  • The second most frequently raised issues were about transport infrastructure, which was raised in 39 consultation issues across the 62 local authorities.
  • Water infrastructure was the sixth most common consultation issue, being raised only 24 times across 62 local authorities.

A visual representation showing the number of each main consultation issue raised in the council consultation documents reviewed for this report.

Among those local authorities consulting specifically on transport, roading was the most frequently raised issue. Among local authorities consulting on water services, potable water supply was the issue most frequently raised. Some issues were raised less frequently than others. Only two local authorities specifically consulted on stormwater issues and only four on footpaths.

Case studies

The table below provides some interesting examples of how infrastructural issues were highlighted in consultation by local authorities who specifically raised infrastructural issues for consultation.

Approach to consultation Examples of interesting practice
Infrastructure in general Auckland Council had investment in core services and infrastructure as its number one consultation issue. We liked the Council’s clear approach to communication through design and the way it set out the implications of not increasing funding. We felt this helped encourage the right debate.

Hutt City Council had “investing in infrastructure” as its first consultation issue. We liked the way the document prioritised and highlighted the importance of “investing in infrastructure”. Its entire consultation document was called Getting the basics right, which is a focus we felt was appropriate. It identified challenges, including “demand and pressure on infrastructure”, and issues, including “ageing infrastructure and investment in renewals”. There were clear options for funding three waters investment, with the preferred option being a significant increase.

Whakatāne District Council effectively consulted on all its core infrastructure, with the first two of its “five big things we need to talk about” being “Tahi: Improving our water supply, wastewater, and stormwater services” and “Rua: Responding to community demand for active transport and road sealing”. The Council was upfront about the scale of the task. It said it is a “must do” and posed the question of how the cost was to be met. We liked the way this framed the right debate for Whakatāne locals.
Specific infrastructure types Greater Wellington Regional Council consulted on “ramping up our restoration of regional parks to fight climate change”. We found the way the Council framed its consultation issues in terms of climate change – “our biggest challenge” – helpful and engaging. It was a good example of linking infrastructure spend to the declared climate emergency and the Council’s resulting commitment to being carbon neutral. Engaging graphics made clear the preferred option with cost and impact understandable.

Kawerau District Council consulted on “drinking water pipe replacement”. Kawerau’s document put infrastructure plans in the context of what has happened in the last three years, demonstrating that asset management is an ongoing process. A one pager presented options for water pipe renewal and set out a clear move from replacing pipes as they break or reach theoretical end of life to a more proactive approach. The Council explained a clear rationale for why it wanted to change.

New Plymouth District Council consulted on a similar issue, dubbing it “fixing our plumbing”, which put the issue in terms that the reader could readily associate with. The document reflected what the community had already told the Council, including views on water meters. It was honest about the key drivers of its challenges, which include “historic underinvestment in our existing assets”. We liked this frank assessment of the decisions the Council wanted help to make.

Southland District Council consulted on key issues: “our roads”, “our bridges”, and “the impact on rates”. We liked the way the Council integrated its consultation on core infrastructure. It provided a description of the need to increase investment in roads and bridges with a clear rationale, nicely illustrated, of the likely consequences on rates, debt, and levels of service. We felt this made all the right connections so that readers would be well informed when providing feedback.
Specific projects Selwyn District Council, as well as consulting on wide-ranging infrastructural issues, also asked for feedback on some specific projects. We liked the way individual projects were presented in a way that the community could relate to and engage with. The “big decisions”, as the Council called them, included “keeping our drinking water safe”, “how we pay for drinking water supply”, and “planning for future roading and transportation projects”. However, it also sought feedback on more detailed aspects of asset management, such as “maintaining our roads”, as well as specific projects such as “developing a new wastewater system in Darfield and Kirwee” and the “future of the Leeston Library and Community Centre”.

Does underlying information support a fair representation?

We expect consultation documents to fairly represent the issues stakeholders are asked to provide a view on. Judging this required us to understand the detailed planning that sits behind the consultation and the information that it is based on. Information underlying good consultation not only means the infrastructure strategy and asset management plans but also asset data, such as its age, materials, condition, performance, and rate of deterioration.

Does underlying information help complex issues to be readily understood?

Asset management planning is a complex topic that involves technical specialists – civil engineers, spatial planners, accountants, strategic planners, etc – coming together to balance competing pressures. They need to identify the optimal strategy to support service delivery today and into the future:

Good asset management maintains an understanding of the cost, risk, and performance trade-offs in the short, medium, and long-term, when making decisions regarding community owned infrastructure assets.

Asset management is about ensuring the delivery of services that the community values today – whilst delivering certainty for the generations of tomorrow.10

For local people to have informed opinions on planning, asset managers need to make complex issues readily understood.

Are significant issues and choices well explained?

For engagement on options to be effective, it needs to offer genuine, open-minded alternatives. In our view, presenting a foregone conclusion against an unpalatable or impractical option does not represent genuine consultation on options.

In our view, ineffective or inappropriate options might include:

  • options that fail to tackle known issues;
  • do nothing options where there is a clear case for change;
  • options that do not meet standards or comply with legislation or regulations; and
  • options that are practically, logistically, or politically near impossible to imagine being pursued.

10: IPWEA, What is asset management?, at www.ipwea.org.