Changing the Culture of Our Councils

We have had debacle after debacle within our councils.  Hawke’s Bay is only the start of it.  We keep promoting the most pedantic and amoral train schedulers who have no idea about where those cattle wagons filled with people are going, or why.

Our repeated problems highlight the fact that the public sector reforms of the last 30 years have created far more harm than good.  I’ve written before about the Slow Death of the Public Service and about the Fragility of Authoritarian that is the result of the neoliberal reforms.  Infrastructural issues relating to water, roads and sewerage, services relating to animals, and bewilderingly unimaginative planning, are just the symptoms.  Councils are looking more and more like unthinking hierarchical behemoths focused primarily on lining all the little ducks up neatly in a row, each within its own silo, ticking little boxes as they go, to please something – some measure or other, for some well-dressed Emperor mayor or other.  That type of unthinking, rigid machine is a complete failure in a complex and uncertain world.

Time lapse danceCouncils are now more structured to march across a dance floor while some fast waltz is playing; on the strict orders of some chap blind in the next room. They get hit every which way by all the other dancers because they are ordered as if there are no surprises, only control.  They are not allowed to feel, foresee or adapt; they are discouraged from dancing within the complex dynamic system which would allow them to get to the other side without a hitch.

God forbid you listen, care or form an opinion.  That’s not mechanical.  You can’t count culture.  Better to assume it’s not important.  All those virtues are replaced by one – obedience to the measured task.  And council people are certainly not encouraged to talk to the public dancers or each other.  Maintain your sense of hierarchy and perfect order.  No wonder they fall.

All of this pedantic detail looks so admirable on paper; so mechanical, so procedural, so linear and accountable, so doubtless and certain.  As ordered, linear, doubtless and certain as General Haig must have felt before the Battle of the Somme. Imagine the confidence and the supercilious arrogance; “I don’t need to ask the opinion of the troops – let alone adapt to what the other side might do; everything is on order,” … before there were 60,000 casualties on the first morning.

The Battle of the Somme is back.

The world is inherently complex and uncertain; an adapting system, not a constant machine. Think like the machine and we will continue to fall. It is a recipe for both missing opportunities and realising threats, neither of which are being looked for, let alone seen.


If you presume the world is certain and controllable, and set up systems accordingly, then you will destroy the very social systems and human capacities that you need to dance within an uncertain and complex world – those flexible and empowered “freedom within a framework” models.

If you are not looking for the unknown, don’t worry, it will find you. In autocratic hierarchies, foresight, questions, imagination and discussion are all treated as a threat by the box-tickers, and so, like a good Vogon, dialogue is quashed. And you can bet your boots that if dialogue and initiative is suppressed and all thought centralised, you will have fall after fall after fall.

It isn’t mechanical ordering that makes a council perform, it is a culture of service, discovery, purpose, resilience and connection.

These are the questions we must ask of our councils.  What is the culture within?  Are they lumbering hierarchical dinosaurs of little brain motivated by petty accountabilities or some megalomaniac sense of grandeur?

Do they smell of arrogant hierarchy?  Do they encourage motivated people focused on the future of our home in a complex and changing world where foresight and adaptability comes from caring, thinking and talking with others – especially beyond the silo walls?  Or do they value obedience above dialogue and thought?

Do councils recognise that wisdom and knowledge is held throughout an organisation and within a community who lives beyond the council walls?  Do they look for the value in people and foster their talent across silos, or are people defined merely by their job description?

Currently, many of our councils are filled with people who care, but their judgment is compromised by a fundamentalist doctrine and delusion of total control; foresight is banished, practical wisdom is kicked for touch, and adaptability is beaten to death with a very blunt stick.

The problem with that type of management style is that the real world is like that complex dance floor of life.  You cannot preordain every move.

Office life

Office life: business team during a meeting

That style also cripples the souls of people who do not come to work to be a slave to some order.  People want to belong to something, to do a good job.

We are not just creating incompetent falls with this obsession we have with command and control, we are crushing the spirits and potential of our people.

It is a form of totalitarianism.  It is a total structural and cultural failure.  And we deserve far better.  If we want better service for ourselves and future generations, the answer is not yet more measured controls; it is changing the culture to one of caring, purpose, thinking, dialoguing, connecting and making partnerships; and with the constant foresight and adaptability we need to be resilient in the face of an uncertain world.

We need our councils to relearn how to dance.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is running as a councillor candidate in the 2018 Hastings District Council by-election.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.

An edited version of this article was published in the Hawke’s Bay Today on 27th February 2018

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