But, more fundamentally, local democracy is important. In many respects, it's the form of government we are most likely to interact with, more often and more directly than central government.
In a paper recently, I tried to capture this essential feature of local government ("Local Authority Decision-Making and the Consideration of Community Views: Obligation and Observance", Paper to "We The People(s)" conference):
Local government is, at least in aspiration terms, all about "the peoples". The very raison d'être of local government is the facilitation of citizen participation and local self-government. The famous Widdicombe report – United Kingdom's parliamentary inquiry into the conduct of local authority business – marked out "participation" as one of the three valuable attributes of local government, along with pluralism and responsiveness:
"Local government offers two kinds of participation; participation in the expression of community views and participation in the actual delivery of services. It does so both through the process of electing representatives as councillors and through the opportunity to influence local government more directly through consultation, co-option, and local lobbying."
In a similar vein, an earlier inquiry emphasised the importance of the democratic feature of local government, reminding us that local authorities are a crucial element of "government" and should not be regarded as merely a provider of services:
"The importance of local government lies in the fact that it is the means by which people can provide services for themselves; can take an active and constructive part in the business of government; and can decide for themselves, within the limits of what national policies and local resources allow, what king of services they want and what kind of environment they prefer."
Nowadays the reference to "government" (the formal institutions of the state) has been replaced with the more fashionable term "governance" (the latter to the wider collaborative process of decision-making) in order to reinforce the centrality of the citizenry to the affairs of the local state. Framed in this way, local governance better captures the idea that governance is "the joint work of government and civil society" and governance "cannot be done by government alone".
The democratic essence of local government is sometimes expressed in more colloquial terms: "grassroots" or "flaxroots" decision-making. The neighbourhood is identified as a "site of democracy". Some suggest there is much greater potential for political participation by citizens at a local, rather than central, level.
Recent reforms in New Zealand's local government framework have also placed the notion of citizen participation at its heart, with a new statement of the very purpose of local government. In addition to the substantive goal of promoting community well-being, local government is charged with enabling "democratic local decision-making and action by, and on behalf of, communities". This lodestar is buttressed by a number of more specific principles, and processes which aim to facilitate interaction between the citizen and the local state. Most significantly, the regime imposes a specific obligation on local authorities to take into account community views when making decisions.
Of course, local government doesn't always deliver on this lofty aspiration as much as we would like (that's something I address further in my paper). However, the "neighbourhood" continues to be a rich place for democracy.
That's why I always get quite excited when I receive my voting pack for the local elections in the mail. Voting is one of great rights - and privileges - of living in a democracy. Others are urging folk to make sure you exercise that right. I echo that too.
But, unlike others, I'm not a disappointed by the usual voter turnout. It's often used - unfairly, I think - to condemn the legitimacy of local government. Some context is needed.
In 2007, the average voter turn-out for territorial authority (city and district council) elections was 52% (http://www.localcouncils.govt.nz/). The highest turnout was 67%; the lowest 34%. For regional councils, it is slightly lower.
That compares with around 79% for the recent 2008 national election. But remember, central government takes around 40% of household income, while local government is closer to 4%.
And, some figures from Local Government New Zealand ("Mythbusters: examining common perceptions about local government in New Zealand") locates our local election turnout in a broader international context:
|Jurisdiction||Turnout % (post 1995)||GDP Share|
Of course, the form and functions of local government varies around the world. So the figures note the contribution of local government to GDP as a crude proxy of its significance in the dynamics of the different countries.
I think viewed in this broader context, our voter turnout isn't that bad. It's lazy journalism to baldly lament low voter turnout.
We can, of course, do better - but that's up to you folk, making sure you vote!