Cut the paper trail

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Veteran Queenstown Lakes District councillor John Mann would be happy not to be inundated with so much paperwork. 

The third term councillor reckons in the nine years he’s been sitting at the decision-making table the flow of information has improved greatly – but it could still be much better. 

“A lot of it is preparation for a council decision but we don’t need as much as we get. It could reduce further,” Mann says. 

His view echoes observations in a confidential consultation document on a proposed council restructure. 

The document, released to staff last week and leaked to Mountain Scene, suggests Queenstown Lakes District Council appears to be failing miserably when it comes to winning the paper war. 

Along with recommending 80 council roles – or 41.98 fulltime equivalent positions – can be cut, the document appears to suggest that’s also true for plenty of agenda items considered by councillors. 

A section of the report on governance says: “The quality of the content of these papers appears to vary significantly and a high proportion of the agenda items and papers are for noting only.” 

In eight months to March 2011 more than 4000 pages of reports were presented to meetings, costing a significant amount of councillor and staff time, it says. 

“Of these items, over 30 per cent are simply for noting. 

“Consideration should be given to whether this volume of reporting is actually required to be referred to the council and committees, or are operational matters which could be appropriately dealt with by the chief executive or management.” 

Cutting the amount of “noting” reports would free up considerable staff resources. Improving the quality of monthly reports would ensure councillors remain appropriately informed about key issues, it says. 

Mann agrees but cautions: “Having council endorsement is probably required so that we’ve actually seen them and are aware – it may be background information that we do need to acknowledge we’re aware of before we make a decision on something else. 

“Part of it is self-serving. I’m not going to say arse-covering, but if council’s aware of it, it’s almost like some sort of endorsement I suppose that [the officials] are on the right track. 

“The bureaucrats want assurances going forward that they’re on the right track, for the right reasons – if we read something in a background report and don’t like the way it’s going, then obviously they don’t want to go marching in a direction that ultimately will fail when it goes to council.” 

The report recommends all agenda items from bureaucrats be signed off by a senior manager or chief executive before going to council to ensure it’s appropriate and there’s consistency in the quality of reporting. 

It also reveals a review of items before meetings in the past year showed – at times – a blurring of responsibilities between the council and committees, and those more suited for the chief executive and management. 

Examples include seeking approval to remove trees that met the criteria under council’s approved tree policy and could have been handled by the parks manager, or seeking approval to remove give way signs when it was the infrastructure boss’ responsibility. 

“There’s no evidence to suggest [council committees] actively sought to involve themselves in matters which would more appropriately lie with management,” the report says. 

However, the blurring has occurred and appears due to an overlap in rules governing whether committees or officials can enter into certain contracts. 

It’s also because of: “Insufficient vetting of agenda items by general managers/chief executive before they’re put on the agendas.” 

At the end of the day, Mann says technology does and can play a greater role than ever – he uses an iPad and says on council’s internal internet he can find just about whatever he wants if he needs more information. 

“Previous councils requested more information and we got overload, went too far – now we’re trying to get to the nub of the issues and if you want to find out more it’s very easy to get. 

“The theory is the more information you’ve got, the better the quality of the decisions. It’s not always the case – if you get too much you end up not being able to make a decision at all.”