Democracy is not a spectator sport. It is participatory. At best it is a contact sport, but unlike rugby or gridiron, the contact is done through communication not bone-jarring hits. In my experience, however, our local government appears lacking in its willingness or ability to communicate.
As a researcher, I seek to draw conclusions based on data and observations. Expressed in research-geek language, the data from my personal experience over the lat three years suggests that there is roughly a 40% probability that council staff will respond to a phone call, email or hand-written note, and about a 25% probability that an elected official will do so. Please note this data is based on a small sample size, and should be considered indicative only.
Some council staff have been excellent in their communications with me, and one Councilor has scored 100% (1 out of 1 email). As I have written many times in my regular column, I have a high regard for Building Control, but I do not necessarily consider them WDC employees for two reasons: 1) we pay them extra to do their jobs (ie, It does not come from rates.); 2) my understanding is that they answer to central government, not local government. As such, I did not include them in my informal research above. Chur, boys.
One thing research-geeks do is discuss their findings. A discussion is an attempt to identify relationships in one’s findings to those of others through a literature review. In the interest of full disclosure, I did not complete a thorough or even partial literature review on this topic. But I have mentioned the tendency toward non-communication with some friends, who have suggested that a great strategy for those in positions of power is simply to ignore those who appear to lack power.
Using my case as an example, the response may go something like this: “Who is this nobody? An unemployed, pesky Yank trying to complicate my day by offering positive suggestions and constructive feedback. Bugger that. If I ignore him he’ll just go away.” Fair enough.
That strategy probably works most of the time because many people are busy and don’t have the time, inclination, or patience to follow-up on what may seem like a lost cause. Fair enough. We are all busy, and life does get in the way. Unfortunately, this reality is exploited by the ‘powers-that-be’ across the planet, often to favour powerful interests rather than the people. Nothing kills democracy like non-participation.
This is why an independent press is critical to vibrant democracy. A free press gives voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless. Any tiny influence I may ever have on our fair city – like turning off outdoor lighting during sunny days – has come through the Whanganui Chronicle. That said, I am not a supporter of the Chronicle for the Chronicle’s sake, but for the sake of democracy.
Please note that I’m fully willing to hold the Chronicle to account, although my wife was the one who has done so most recently. Also note that I have never been paid for my contributions to the paper. Approximately 90 pieces of writing and close to 400 photographs representing over to 300 hours of work have earned me one flat white from previous editor, Ross Pringle, although current editor, Mark Dawson, has promised me another coffee before the end of the year.
This is what democracy looks like, and anyone can do it. From my perspective, the Chronicle remains an extremely relevant entity in our community, and I encourage everyone on every side of every issue to write carefully constructed, well-supported arguments to support their point of view. If your case is strong enough, those in positions of power will no longer ignore you. (Although after all of my constructive feedback to Council, I suspect they’ll do their best to ignore me until I join them at the Council Table.)
One final example: After three years of inaction on the lights outside the Central Library, it only took three days for WDC to get in an electrician on the job after my opinion piece ran last week. The moral of this story appears to be: If you want something done in this town, do it through the press. Get writing you lot!