Civic Square, Wellington. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Civic Square, Wellington. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

OPINIONPoliticsSeptember 13, 2021

Wellington City Council is not a ‘brand’

Civic Square, Wellington. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Civic Square, Wellington. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Our council faces crisis. Wellingtonians deserve better. What they don’t need is corporate spin, writes city councillor Fleur Fitzsimons.

Last week, the Wellington City Council released an external review into its communications and engagement functions. The review found that the council needed a “refreshed corporate identity” as if the council is a corporation with something to sell, like a sneakers brand or insurance company.

The council does not operate in a competitive marketplace, and there is no share price to protect. The council exists for simple reasons, to make Wellington function properly as a city that residents can live well in. The council has enough challenges living up to that basic expectation.

The council exists to address the reality that for residents and businesses, it is better if we collectively build pipes, transport and recreation infrastructure. It is better if together we plan for housing, shopping and hospitality and it is better if we as a city provide the support needed for residents who are struggling.

Ultimately, the council’s reputation rests on whether we meet the needs and expectations of residents, and their assessment is made via democratic elections. It’s nice to have an appealing logo, and essential we communicate with residents with clarity and honesty. But we are not a “brand” in any meaningful sense of the word, and nor should we aspire to behave like one.

Confusion on this point is further evident in the consultant’s expressed view that the council’s approach to communications is too “reactive”, and that council messaging isn’t sufficiently cohesive. This is boilerplate corporate language that fails to grasp that being responsive to unfolding issues and challenges is not a sign of weakness, but of strength, in a democratic institution.

I cannot recall a single instance when a resident has pulled me aside to express frustration at our failure to be more proactive or streamlined in our communications. As we face accountability on a raft of real-world challenges that actually impact people’s lives, I don’t think concerns over branding will feature too prominently in next year’s local body elections, either.

The idea that the council (which has a monopoly on collecting money from residents and businesses) is a brand that somehow needs protecting or promoting is a dangerous one. The motivations and decisions of corporates in the interests of protecting their brands are at odds with the approach that public institutions need to take to listen to and deliver for residents.

The proliferation of spin and branding within public institutions coincided with a shift to a corporate governance model that saw chief executives employed on fixed tenure employment agreements and treats elected representatives as if we are board directors whose primary role is upholding brand integrity, whatever that means. We should never allow reputation management to supersede democratic accountability.

Whatever the history, when public institutions start treating people simply as “customers” to deliver a service to, a critical aspect of the relationship that must exist between public institutions and people is lost. This whole concept separates residents from the council and is inherently undemocratic.

Wellington is full of passionate people who want to engage with local democracy. Their contribution will improve decision making and give council decisions much-needed legitimacy. To treat residents as passive customers downplays and undermines the importance of this relationship.

The Wellington City Council has had its fair share of problems over the past few years. The crisis facing the council is plain for all to see and much-needed government reform is coming.

We have water infrastructure that is failing and a housing market that is failing at its most basic task – to house people. Public confidence in the way the council makes decisions is at an all-time low and voter turnout is woeful.

It would be lazy and wrong to think that any amount of corporate spin would help here in any case.

Wellingtonians are not about to be bamboozled by the dark arts of public relations. The council would be far better to firmly own its role as a public agency that welcomes criticism from residents and gets the basics right.

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