Local Government New Zealand’s Mike Reid has an interesting piece in the latest Policy Quarterly about local council turnout. (Short version: it’s low largely because councils don’t have many powers, and this is set to get worse as central government reforms strip even more power from them.)
One of the other factors behind low turnout, Reid argues, is that people have to elect not just councillors but also district health board members, and the complexity of the latter is highly off-putting.
Assuming this is true, I don’t think the answer is – as Mike Hosking has argued, if that’s the right word – to give up on electing DHBs. It’s important to have citizens’ voices shaping policy; the Capital Coast DHB recently paid tribute to the work of one elected member, David Choat, for distinctly improving the quality of their decisions.
So how to make it easier to elect people to DHBs? I suspect the first problem is that people simply don’t know what DHBs are and what they do. I can’t recall exactly how much information about DHBs was provided in this year’s election booklet, but I don’t think it was very extensive or done very well.
One step might be to have a clear statement of what each DHB does – both in print and online – including perhaps a plain English statement of the five key things each DHB has identified it wants to deal with in the coming years.
More than that, though, I think most people struggle to work out who to vote for, given there are generally no party affiliations to rely on, the published bios can be pretty vague, and most people are legitimately a bit busy to go hunting for further information that may not exist. Groups like the Public Health Association (PHA) do good rankings of candidates, but most people don’t see them.
My solution – coming from a journalistic background – would be to require each candidate to answer (say) five basic questions about what they would do on key policy issues facing the DHB. That’d provide nice, clear, standardised information to help voters work out if they agree with candidates. (Any candidate providing daft or minimal answers would hopefully get ignored by voters.) If candidates had to provide their stance on fluoridation, for instance (as the PHA asks them to do), you would quickly know which ones were – to put it politely – out of touch with scientific reality.
The problem would be how to pick the questions. But the Electoral Commission could survey voters in advance to find out what questions they most want answered, and then augment that with feedback from a panel of health experts. The end result would be an objectively important set of questions – and a much easier choice for voters.