Auckland Council and transparency tests
Stuff’s ‘‘Things we didn’t learn this week’’ campaign intends to shine a light on the daily reluctance of many important public bodies to answer questions.
I have felt guilty not being able to contribute since it began, from my daily dealingswith Auckland Council, and its agencies. There is a good reason, but one that many won’t believe.
From my own experience, Auckland is served by local body organisations that are prepared to be open, not always immediately, but mostly eventually.
Openness is a culture, and largely driven from the top, and the variations in my experiences with Auckland Council and its agencies have largely reflected that.
The council was formed in 2010, amalgamating eight local bodies, and its mood reflected a public expectation that so much would be better.
Openness also reflects confidence, and in inaugural chief executive officer Doug McKay and mayor Len Brown therewas a transparency that generally cascaded through to lower levels.
The initial outlier was Auckland Transport, chaired by the late Mark Ford, who had led the amalgamation process, and the inaugural chief executive officer David Warburton. Both took too literally the legislative design of the Council-controlled organisations (CCOS) as semiautonomous companies, with boards, indirect control by politicians, and limited public accountability.
I, and representatives of other stakeholder groups, spent years trying to get AT to publish even the contents page of the confidential parts of its agendas – a change that really only occurred under the second chair, Lester Levy.
Political style and leadership conditions the readiness of the agencies to be open. My monthly chats with the council’s second chief executive officer – Stephen Town – were suspended for a while after the arrival of Phil Goff as mayor in 2016.
Goff’s early public criticism of some CCOs, and a habit of releasing letters laying down the law to the chief executive or a board chair, created awariness about being open.
My worst experiences with the council occurred early in Goff’s first term – both were around a reluctance to release reports commissioned by the mayor.
In July 2018, chief ombudsman Peter Boshier directed the council to apologise to this journalist and my then-employer over the five-month delay, and the circumstances surrounding the release of a study on the vehicle import trade and whether Auckland’s economy would be betterwithout it. It wouldn’t, said the report. The findings included thatwhile Goffwas not involved, his principal adviser took part in discussion over the report’s release.
‘‘Therewas an undesirable lack of clarity concerning their role in the process,’’ wrote Boshier.
The ombudsman also had to overrule the council’s 2017 decision not to release a copy of another Goff-commissioned report, an inconclusive $1 million exercise on the viability of a downtown stadium.
Aside from those early Goffera glitches, my experience has been of a council which generally responds promptly to requests and makes senior and specialist staff available for interviews, or briefings.
Auckland Transport’s occasional lapses have largely been due to repeated organisational failure, rather than intention to withhold, such as the 16 months taken to release what was clearly not the report asked for.
Things are not always perfect, and the slow-moving official information process for more complex queries is frustrating, but compared to many central government ministries and institutions, Aucklanders can have some confidence in ‘‘ask, and it shall be answered’’.
My dealings with police and some big ministries like health, though, that is another story.