Local government key to transparency

Khyaati Acharya
Insights Newsletter
13 December, 2013

Following on from last week’s piece The costs of corruption, this Monday saw the release of Transparency International’s ambitious and highly anticipated Integrity Plus 2013: National Integrity Systems assessment (NIS).

The 374-page report provides detailed insights into the national “institutions, laws, procedures, practices and attitudes that encourage and support integrity in the exercise of power”. It focuses on 12 distinct branches of government, sectors or agencies that constitute the national integrity system, how they interact and how they contribute to transparency and accountability in New Zealand’s institutional arrangements.

New Zealand remains highly ranked against global indicators of transparency and quality of governance, but there are still a number of risks and weaknesses.
Many of the weaknesses were highlighted a decade ago in Transparency International’s initial 2003 NIS report. Progress in these areas has been only very recent, insufficient or simply non-existent.
Weaknesses include the “relative dominance of the political executive, shortfalls in the transparency in many of the 12 branches and inadequate efforts to address, enhance and protect integrity in New Zealand”. 

However, an interesting new addition is the inclusion of an analysis of local government and its relationship with central government.

Local government can promote greater transparency through fairer, more efficient and more effective governance. Strengthening the role of democracy at a local level strengthens accountability.

This report emphasises that a key weakness and significant barrier to greater transparency is the interface between central and local government. In particular, there is concern over intervention by central government in the decision-making authority of local government.

An absence of constitutional protection of the powers of local government in New Zealand is also stressed as a critical weakness. While, arguably, local government has a considerable degree of independence, there are no entrenched constitutional provisions to protect that independence.

Furthermore, by international standards, local government in New Zealand not only has a narrow range of functions, but also accounts for a small percentage of public spending.

According to the report, local government receives, on average, only 9 per cent of central government operating revenue.

The report’s recommendations emphasise the need for a ‘more firmly embedded role for local government’. Greater devolution of power to local government is not of course the only means of reducing the risks of corruption at central government level, but it is an option that merits public debate. 

Pride in New Zealand’s ranking should be accompanied by vigilance and action, not complacency.

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