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Why “Auckland Transport” needs to engage with the public

Last week I asked the question of whether the Auckland Transport CCO would become a “secretive agency”, like ARTA has been, or whether it would be publicly open, accountable and transparent. While my concern in that blog post was about the specific question of whether Auckland Transport will publish agendas and minutes from their Board Meetings online (and there’s still no sign that they will), the extent to which Auckland Transport engages with the public – or conversely the extent to which it undertakes most of its work in secret – will be a key factor in whether the agency becomes a success or whether it ends up being a failure.

Of course I have a bit of a vested interest here – in that I want Auckland Transport to let the general public know what it’s doing to as great an extent possible because I want information to blog about. But that’s not really the main reason why Auckland Transport should be open and transparent about what it does – rather it should engage with the public, let people know what it’s doing, get in the media arguing the case for public transport improvements and so on because if it does this it will be much more successful. (As an aside, I do want to make it clear that if Auckland Transport does not post its board meeting agendas and minutes online I will request copies of each board paper for each meeting under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, scan them in and post them online – so let’s hope Auckland Transport comes to its senses and we’re all saved the trouble of this).

As the Super City election results showed, people are interested in transport and they want to see significant improvements to public transport. Furthermore, as we’ve seen on various transport matters in recent times – such as the bus lane fine debacle and the Dominion Road T2 lane debacle – people also get pretty passionate about making their voice heard when the transport “powers to be” appear to be ignoring their wishes. Transport is controversial, it is messy, it is subjective as one person’s genuinely good idea to make life better for some may negatively impact on others. In some respects, this is an argument for transport matters to be “in house” within the Auckland Council – an argument well made by Herald columnist John Roughan back when we were having the Transport CCO argument:

Non-elected boards have worked well for government departments that can charge for their services, and for the chargeable services of local government. They can be given a measurable financial objective and left to decide how to organise and price the service to meet it.

The system works when the public doesn’t care how the service is organised so long as it remains reliable. The boards that will manage the Auckland Council’s property, water supply, stadiums, events and the like, should be fine.

But the system is problematic when the public cares about the means to an end. It is the means, not the ends, of solving traffic congestion or developing a public waterfront that are likely to arouse public interest and political disagreement. The ends are readily agreed.

There’s not much point arguing over whether transport should be part of Council or a separate CCO, because that decision has now been made. However, it is still very valid to pose the question of how Auckland Transport will handle being in this position – of doing stuff where people are concerned about the mean, not just the ends. Of working in an environment that’s controversial, political, debatable, subjective and so forth.

ARTA’s organisational structure, particularly its “secrecy”, just isn’t going to work for the new agency in my opinion. So what might we hope to see from Auckland Transport, so that it can be more open, transparent, accountable and generally engaged with the general public? Well here are a few ideas:

  1. First and foremost, it must post online as much information as possible about what it’s up to. This would include all board papers, board minutes, reports, studies, strategies and policies. The public is funding this agency, so we have a right to know what they’re up to.
  2. Auckland Transport should reach out more to the public and ask them for ideas. I’ve been collecting “quick fix” ideas on the Campaign for Better Transport’s forum – small ways to improve the public transport system that wouldn’t cost much and would be quick to implement. Why shouldn’t Auckland Transport do something similar?
  3. Something similar to Vancouver’s “Buzzer Blog” should be considered. This blog provides a great mix of  things like service level updates with special events information,  quirky photos taken by users and information about service improvements. Crucially, this is a two-way communication where people can post comments with staff responding to those comments quickly.
  4. Auckland Transport should also be more active in promoting improved transport options in media debates. As I noted above, ARTA could have weighed in a lot more on things like the Dominion Road and the bus lane fine debacles. Both issues potentially affected them a lot, yet they stayed almost silent. Auckland Transport needs to be much more of an advocate for improving the system.

I am hopeful that we will see a new culture in Auckland Transport compared to ARTA. I am hopeful that the organisation will try to be open and engaged with the public. It might fall to the Auckland Council’s Transport Committee to ensure these things happen, but I’m confident they will.

If not, I guess I’m going to be pretty busy with my official information requests.

9 comments to Why “Auckland Transport” needs to engage with the public

  • nzbcfanboi

    The site map seems to show there will be a section for Governance with sub-sections for minutes and Agendas site maps are a bit of dying art but they are pretty handy IMO http://www.aucklandtransport.govt.nz/Pages/site-map.aspx

  • Chris R

    Is Auckland Transport subject to the OIA?

  • Simon

    I’m concerned about a few North Shore projects that could turn out badly.

    Onewa Transit Lane (T3->T2)
    Easton Park Parade (Closure)

    And then there are those that could now actually happen like:

    Buses being redirected through Akoranga Station the way they are supposed to be
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/new-zealand/news/article.cfm?l_id=71&objectid=10480338

  • Chris R

    Are but does the Act setting up Auckland Transport bind it to the OIA or it’s local govt version?

    • Matt

      The Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act. It’s a local government body, so the LGOIMA was the logical choice. The alternative would’ve been no oversight at all.

      If one reads the original post, Josh actually explicitly names the Act under which he will be requesting information from AT if it’s not sufficiently forthcoming with information to the general public.

  • Armchair Critic

    I wouldn’t get your hopes up. The CCO model is not geared toward transparency.
    The water CCOs (Manukau Water, Metrowater and Watercare) published as little information as they possibly could. What they did publish was filtered by their Communications departments and made as generic, vague and bland as they thought they could get away with. Reports were kept in “Draft” form for as long as possible, because draft reports need not be released under the LGOIMA. Though projects always proceed based on the draft report.
    I can’t think why Auckland Transport will be any different.

    • Matt

      One reason why Auckland Transport stands a chance is that Mike Lee will be on the board. Another reason is that Brown has full power to sack directors who don’t meet his expectations, which tends to be a remarkably effective stick: “Do it, or you’ll be looking for a new job and trying to explain away the media stories on how you got fired because you couldn’t follow instructions.”

      • Armchair Critic

        That’ll work until at least 2014.
        I’d like to see the politicians demand that the directors insist that the senior managers encourage a culture of openness throughout the organisation, rather than run it like a family business.
        More than that I’d like to see a shorter line of control from the ratepayer to the staff who get stuff done.

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