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“A shared north star” – intergenerational wellbeing needs system change at Local and Central government levels

A toddler walking happily with his hands up

In this opinion op-ed, originally published in the Sunday Star Times, Productivity Commission Chair Dr Ganesh Nana is calling for system change. We are not building from scratch and the recent release of two inquiries - the Productivity Commission’s A Fair Chance for All inquiry, and the independent review into the Future of Local Government, provides a strong platform for us to do this. Despite very different terms of references, the thematic similarities between these two inquiry reports are striking.

4 July 2023

Systems change and systems thinking seem to be all the rage right now.  In our A Fair Chance for All inquiry, we considered how well the public management system in Aotearoa New Zealand is operating. Our inquiry engaged extensively with communities and stakeholders across New Zealand to understand how the public management system must continue to evolve, to meet the complex challenges our country faces.  

These challenges are systemic and are likely to persist and intensify. Climate change, natural disasters, and social and economic inequities are becoming the norm. These issues play out at place – locally. So, it was timely to see the release of the independent review into the Future of Local Government, the day after our final report was published. 

In the face of overlapping and compounding crises, the Commission has called for public management system change. We are not building from scratch and the recent release of these two substantial inquiries provide a strong platform for us to do this. 

Systems thinking demands we examine the patterns within and between systems. Although our inquiry focused on the public management system, the parallel between our findings, and those of the Review into the Future of Local Government, is striking. Despite the different terms of reference, scope and modes of establishment, the thematic similarities between each review’s findings and recommendations are very evident. 

I note the collective call for better outcomes to be achieved through a stronger focus on stewardship and relationship-building; giving effect to te Tiriti o Waitangi and growing authentic Treaty relationships with hapū and iwi; an acknowledgement communities must be at the heart of efforts to build intergenerational wellbeing; and the need for all parts of government – local and central – to come together to align wellbeing priorities, and channel short and long term investment accordingly.  

Taituarā, the national organisation for local government professionals, summed this up well: “It is time for central and local government to have a shared north star – the wellbeing of communities and whānau at place. We need a solid platform, and an agreed plan to get there.” 

The recommendations of each review consider different legislative and other levers to address the collective problem. The Review Panel recommends provisions are added to the Local Government Act that reinforce and give effect to the wellbeing purpose. This would require councils to set wellbeing goals and priorities, and Central and Local Government to align wellbeing priorities and agree place-based investment plans.  

We support this thrust.  Our inquiry has recommended greater alignment of the roles and responsibilities of Central and Local Government in planning and delivering wellbeing outcomes.  We also recommended setting long-term wellbeing objectives and all-of-government priorities consistent with improving the wellbeing of current and future generations, via the Public Finance Act.  Both reviews note the need for cross-party support across Parliament for such impactful changes - a “shared north star”. 

Beyond political support, both the Review and our Inquiry note areas where planning and funding cycles need to be better aligned to get best return from long term investment in wellbeing, and to better understand their impacts.  Our recommendation for better prioritisation and alignment of the “wellbeing” expenditure across Central government agencies is complementary to the Review Panel’s recommendation to align planning cycles between Central and Local government, so decisions about significant priorities and investments can be made in a joined-up way.  

Finally, we both recognise the strength of communities to respond to systemic challenges for themselves – with the right support from Central and Local levels of Government. Again, the recommendations we have made in our respective reports can be considered mutually reinforcing.  

I’ve only outlined a summary here; each report presents recommendations that have significant implications if implemented fully. Strong leadership will be needed from all quarters, but the time to be bold is now.