Monday, 30 January 2012

The Officer Ether

In Councillese the term "officer" actually means "a staff member of the Council".  We democratically elected people (governing body or local board members in Auckland) rely on officers for advice, and to make our decisions into reality.  Officers are essential to our work and without them it would be pretty hard to function meaningfully.

As with any large group of people there are good eggs and bad eggs.  So far my experience is that the good officers far outweigh the bad.  I've been astonished by the number of highly accomplished and truly effective officers I've encountered to date.  For every one person who has frustrated me by going all Sir Humphrey and not really answering my questions, there have been at least 5 who have been flexible, smart, and committed to empowering local board members.

But good eggs or bad there is one thing that no officer seems to be able to overcome:  The Officer Ether.

Here's an example:

Earlyish last year our board had an informal workshop with officers from Department A about stuff.  In the context of that I discovered that the officers presenting to us were precisely the people I needed to talk to about issue Y, and had a hallelujah moment, as I thought I'd finally worked out who to talk to about Y.  I enthusiastically talked to them about Y during the workshop, we set a meeting to talk just about Y in the near future, and promises were made to follow through in what seemed to me suspiciously short time frames.  Nothing moves quickly in local government, unless it is the six months prior to an election and an elected member wants to push through something controversial before they are no longer in power.  But I digress.

I'm okay with moving slowly, especially as I'm learning so much about this work and it's a new organisation which is still struggling with structures.  I thought I was really getting somewhere with Y, and had several meetings with these officers to progress it, but then the mist rose and the issue was subsumed, lost in the Officer Ether.  Phone calls, emails, requests via other, proven helpful, officers; radio silence from the department concerned for quite some period of time.

Eventually, after some nagging reminding I did receive a spreadsheet on Y.  I hopefully opened it; at last I thought, the first piece of this puzzle, one that I'll be lucky to complete during this term but which really does have to be done in the interests of good governance and principles of kaitiakitanga.

But alas, the spreadsheet contained only half the information I needed.  It gave me the list I'd requested but not the information about the items on the list which was essential to the issue.  And since then, despite numerous attempts, it appears the Officer Ether around Y has become so thick that it is invisible to all but me.  I will keep trying to find it, to feel the outline of it and communicate that to others, but until then I'm stuck and simply cannot progress this piece of work at all.

Often the Officer Ether is quite thin, and easily overcome with a little help from the main officer who assists me (who is absolutely excellent).  Other times it takes some personal persistence.  And then there are a few issues, like Y, which are just hanging about in there, goodness knows where, and I don't know if they'll ever emerge in this term or any other.

Clearly this is a problem of system and structure, not just individual staff.  Indeed on the very rare occasions when it has been an officer appearing to be withholding information that has been overcome by the simple act of going above their head.

This new Auckland Council structure is still patchy.  There are many holes; not just from loss of institutional knowledge as a result of the amalgamation but also from sheer vacancies which seem to be at most levels of the organisation, making it very hard to be really functional.  Case in point; a department that I deal with that covers all the Auckland isthmus for a sizeable chunk of Council's work had SEVENTEEN vacancies, more than a year after amalgamation.  I regularly receive emails from officers in the evenings, and on the weekends, which suggests to me either some of these jobs are too big or there aren't enough people doing them.  The Officer Ether surely existed in the past, from what colleagues tell me of their experiences before the Super City, and it seems to have been exacerbated since November 1st 2010.

While I wasn't a big fan of amalgamation I'm not working to overturn it and I am working with the new structure.  It's absolutely crystal clear however that the process of merging into the new Auckland Council was simply too fast.   The role of Local Boards, and the fact that we have significantly more power than the former community boards, was not communicated clearly enough throughout the whole organisation.  Simple things like not receiving invites to any Auckland Anniversary or Waitangi Day celebrations, despite the fact that all city councillors would have in the old structure.  A lack of understanding that when a Local Board member speaks at an event we often are doing so on behalf of the Council, as we have equal status to the Governing Body members (councillors).   The idea that it's as important to consult the Local Board as it is to talk to the ward councillors, indeed more important, as the councillors operate at a regional level while we are truly local in focus. It's Co-Governance, innit.

What would help to cut through the Officer Ether?  My naive newbie suggestions include:

  • Fully staffing everything.  And that means making sure there is sufficient slack in the system for frantic times, and to cover leave etc.  And overstaffing a little until most of the vacancies are filled, to make up for the time being spent on recruitment by key officers.
  • Widespread acknowledgement within Auckland Council of the true role of Local Board members - that we are much more than community board members and will require more information, more attention, and take more of an interest than they did.  
  • Getting everyone (including elected members) to repeat ten times, every morning, "Councillors are regional, Local Boards are local."  
  • Recognition that most Local Board members are only able to do this work as a part time job, and thus a serious review of the work-flow to take that into account.  I imagine such a review might recommend putting in place at least three weeks' notice for meetings and prioritising arranging them around the availability of elected members.  It's hard to be as involved as I should be when I receive less than 24 hours notice of a local forum with the Minister of Social Development, for example.  
Any large organisation has its equivalent of Officer Ether I imagine.  Auckland Council is now super-large, and the increase in ether appears to be exponential.  To make our local government truly functional, accountable and effective we need to get Officer Ether down to a minimum; for all elected members, not just those who shout and stomp, or have the resources to make following-up a full time job.

NB:  I'm going to be blogging a bit about my experiences in local government I hope, not always with an overtly feminist angle, but certainly chronicling some of the observations of a feminist local body politician.  


Hugh said...

Nice photo.

I share your view about the Council amalgamation - I wasn't sure about it, but I don't think it is worth trying to overturn in the medium term, if only because it's already caused so much disruption that changing again would only cause even more and create initiative fatigue.

There's probably a degree of "ether" that is innate to any large organisation, and a further degree that's innate to any large organisation undergoing deep changes, so unless we are against the idea of broad changes and/or large organisations on principle we have to bite our lips and think of the bigger picture.

However it doesn't surprise me that Auckland has been even more ill-prepared than was necessary given the scale of the change. I suspect there are two reasons for this:

1) Utopian expectations. When you think that your change is going to have a transformative effect, and that if only you can get the right rules laid down and everything will transform into a land of milk and honey, you often neglect to take care of the sort of small-scale problems which accumulate to form the "ether". The Auckland council shift is a great example of this - since the changeover was intended to reduce bureaucratic obstructionism, it would have been too much cognitive dissonance to prepare for the bureaucratic obstructionism that would result, since it would undermine the "every thing will be better once we've got this through" narrative.

2) I suspect that a lot of the people who planned the handover from the old to the new structures, particularly at the higher level, actually don't believe in the Community Boards - they want to see them fade into de facto irrelevance, and thus aren't going to resource them to the level they'll need to fulfil their formal expectations. This kind of soft "withering on the vine" of local institutions is all too common in local government - remember how District Health Boards were supposed to have a transformative effect and to provide a sparkling golden bridge between local and central policy-making? And now they're just a bunch of largely anonymous people clogging up local election voting forms every three years.

But even with all that aside the under-staffing is quite shocking. Seventeen positions vacant for more than a year? What's going on? Is nobody applying? Are the people who are applying not qualified? I can understand the problems with hiring under-qualified staff and that getting people up to speed can consume a lot of resources but I'd say that it'd probably consume even more to have so many positions un-filled for so long. It would actually be really challenging to come into a position that other people had been working-round for a year or more -everybody would have gotten used to not having a Policy Review Officer (or what have you).

tl:dr version - that sounds rough, I look forward to more posts, and nice photo.

Julie said...

I'm afraid I can take little credit for the photo beyond finding it on flickr. It seemed apt.

I'm not sure those 17 positions were vacant for that whole period - most departments have been through at least one and often it seems two restructures in the last 18 months. We don't get a lot of info on this stuff really - staff just keep doing the best job they can for us, but with these kinds of structural limitations it's a very hard job indeed.