It is expected that in the next few weeks the Board of Auckland Transport will make one of their most important decisions – who they appoint as the next Chief Executive. David Warburton is retiring from the role he has held since formation of the Super City in 2010. As far as I’m aware he’s the last of the inaugural chief executives left among the Council Controlled Organisations. We have previously highlighted some key attributes the next chief executive will need to have – strong international experience in a major city, a really good understanding of land-use planning and placemaking, and hopefully a bit of much needed diversity into their executive team.

Whoever the person is, they will have a big job ahead of them. While there are many great people working within Auckland Transport, it does at times seem like a dysfunctional organisation. Let’s run through a few “big picture” observations of the past few years:

Bizarre City Rail Link decisions:

This was highlighted well in a recent article on The Spinoff. While CRL is no longer under Auckland Transport’s control, up until a few months ago it was. While credit is due for their part in getting the government over the line in supporting the project (although this mainly seemed to be Len Brown’s persistence), it seems like the main thing Auckland Transport has done in recent years is make the project more expensive and also worse. Let’s run through a few things:

  • The project’s cost increased from $2.5 billion to $3.4 billion (while not telling the mayor about it).
  • The Beresford Square entrance to K Road station was swapped out for the hopelessly hidden and difficult to access Mercury Lane station.
  • K Road station also isn’t being future proofed for longer trains, even though stations throughout the rest of the network have been.
  • The operation pattern proposes a stupid “purple line” which costs a lot to build and run and only adds unnecessary complexity for passengers.
  • Crazy intransigence about a hopelessly inadequate reinstatement of Albert St

Extremely slow progress on changing anything

This has been particularly evident on a number of key projects. Perhaps the most notable of these has been AMETI, which after seven years of AT’s existence still doesn’t yet even have consent for the busway from Panmure to Pakuranga, let alone Botany. Also notable has been the new bus network which was meant to be completed by 2016 but now won’t be till sometime in 2018. Many other projects have suffered delays or take an extremely long time, even projects that should be simple. One such example is that it could be up to 18 months to get a bit of white paint laid.

A culture of secrecy

In addition to the CRL costs mentioned above, AT has had shocking culture of secrecy over the years. Examples include that they didn’t tell the Mayor or Councillors they were investigating Light Rail until they suddenly realised at the last minute it needed to be included in the Council’s Long Term Plan documents if they wanted to get it funded. This was a strategy that helped make the government agencies more sceptical of the project. More recently we saw AT try and kill the Victoria St Linear Park, a key project in council documents, in large part because of backroom discussions with the Universities and they surprised council again with a sudden funding request for more (much needed) trains.

Obviously not everything has been bad and one of the most notable aspects has been the general growth in public transport use, which has grown by more than 40% – although it might be even higher if more projects were completed on or near time.

The AT CEO role will be the latest in string of recent changes within our transport agencies.

  • The NZTA got a new CEO back in 2015. Earlier this year the NZTA restructured their senior leadership team which I understand was to break down some of the silo’s that existed within the organisation.
  • Over at the Ministry of Transport, a new senior leadership structure starts at the beginning of next month. One of the interesting comments in the announcement is about teams no longer being mode based.

Peter initiated an organisational review in February to reflect the changing nature of the Ministry’s work.

“The increasing importance of emerging technologies, urban development, housing, tourism, and environmental and social issues all have impacts on our transport system – and I believe we need to make changes now to continue delivering what is being asked of us,” Peter says.

“A key difference under the new structure is that our teams are no longer mode based. This makes us more agile and helps us to bring a systems thinking approach to the transport sector.

With so much change on in recent times and coming up, we can only hope this will lead to better outcomes for transport.

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88 comments

  1. I disagree on international experience. I’ve worked with imports in 3 different “large” organisations and not one of them had any skills that Kiwis lacked. The high-profile imports NZ has had e.g. Education, Treasury, have been failures.

      1. JDELH Has a really good point. I hope they choose a good local person. I think the intellectual knowledge can come by getting a few specialist consultants. I am open but I have scene experts break things ” remember the old Auckland Festival’ went from local to international. Ambition, local knowledge will be very important. Just being experienced is not enough.

    1. “”key attributes – strong international experience in a major city, a really good understanding of land-use planning and placemaking, and hopefully a bit of much needed diversity into their executive team””

      JDELH – I agree with you; I’m assuming AT has many experienced managers who have studied their areas of AT intensively – a new Chief Executive should be keeping them focused not be second guessing them.
      She/He will have a team of expert land-use planners and they will do a better job if they are not in fear of being overruled.
      Diversity is interesting; I’m assuming the current executive team is mainly white, middle-aged and male so a black woman would make the team photos more appealing but seriously what is needed is diversity of thought not appearance. This could be achieved by bringing in someone of authority but no experience of transport or urban geography – I know from experience that merely having the task of explaining a technical matter to a layman greatly helped me to identify the critical issues in my proposals.

      Diversity – the emphasis on diversity does tend to mean that however talented the gay black muslim person appointed is the rumours will go that they were promoted for their diversity not their talent.

      Having downplayed diversity I now contradict myself – it would send a great message if the next AT chief executive was wheelchair bound.

    2. There have been similar examples in transport in Australia. It never ceases to amaze me after the disaster of British Railtrack that we readily import former UK transport execs assuming they know best. Some do, but many do not. The best transport system management is in Japan, Korea and northern Europe.

      1. Our hospitals are quite guilty of the same thing – importing British management who try to implement failed NHS policies in NZ hospitals with sometimes undesired outcomes. The argument is they have “international experience” and add “diversity of thought”. Trouble is, NZ has thrown away the shackles of being a little Britain of the south a long time ago.

    3. If we can get someone quality from overseas it would be good, but there is no guarantee of that as it is a competitive market.

      The big risk is falling into the trap of them having an exotic sounding name or accent and assuming they know what they talk about. A bit like the Phoenix bringing in Brazilian footballers, they must be good as they are from Brazil but in reality they are not exactly getting the cream of the crop.

    4. I disagree.

      International leader living in highly urbanized city with great public transport such as Tokyo, New York, Paris, will have a very different vision, compare to a laid back kiwi living in Small town.

      It is the vision that makes the difference

      1. And yet Auckland rates better than most of those cities on plenty of liveability indices

        Maybe they should be importing OUR Council managers

        Let me tell you something about vision: it’s like imagination. J R R Tolkien didn’t actually have to see orcs and trolls.

        1. One area that we generally fall down on in those indices is transport, I somehow doubt the managers of our transport body will be particularly sought after overseas!

        2. Most bogus analogy I’ve heard for a while. Tolkien’s writings were the product of a lifetime immersed in history, mythology and literature. The chances of you producing the same is on a par with winning the lottery

          1. Oh, it’s on now.

            Tolkien’s philological career DID immerse him in history, mythology, and literature, but he was writing things that later served as pillars of his work in his late teens/early twenties – before his immersion.

          2. “In a hole in the ground there lived all dreams of a better Auckland. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of infrequent services and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole without any services to speak of: it was a pothole, and that means comfort”

  2. AT’s silos need some serious dealing with, take for example its roads renewals group which will come along and completely rebuild and remark a road without any consideration to changing the status quo. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of missed opportunities annually.

    1. Ive heard staff say tgat the silos were set up DELIBERATELY because senior management after super city creation and creation of AT was worried the day to day work would otherwise have founderd in the transition. If true that has certainly affected the DNA of AT for much more than the transition period…

    2. Wow. That’s probably behind the issues on Waiheke too (which I just posted about below): Roads just being worked on without any thought or communication in advance about desired outcomes in terms of stormwater, ecology or non-vehicular users.

  3. Add to the list of failings a Waiheke experience:

    – Running Waiheke’s stormwater system (which is predominantly associated with the roads) into the ground, causing an amazing amount of damage to their own roads and private properties below them, refusing to accept responsibility or do anything about it except patch-ups (and often only after environment court proceedings) and then finally handing the now huge stormwater problem over to the new Healthy Waters team.
    – Seeming to go out of their way to support one incumbent ferry operator against a much needed competitor, by allowing the incumbent to double their offerings on the covered wharves whilst denying the competitor access to any covered facilities. And running a bus service which only served the incumbent. (Not forgetting that they don’t fund the ferry service to Waiheke, unlike almost all other public transport in Auckland, which is run by a monopoly operator at commercial rates; which being a monopoly, they set as they please). https://www.greaterauckland.org.nz/2016/04/27/explore-no-more/
    – Refusing time and again to communicate with the local board before starting a project and repeatedly going against their wishes, the local planning and vision documents. My impression is that they would try to get the project done before anyone noticed, or get enough done that it was too late to change, to avoid any interaction with the pesky locals or their representatives.
    – Supporting the double decker tourist buses which none of the locals wants and needs and which whisk visitors off to a number of commercial venues that one assumes have a commercial relationship with the bus operator (which is the same operator as the ferries), to the extent of using public money to pay for chopping down vegetation in the regional park and mulching the protected geckos along with their habitat. Also re-allocating parking by the ferry terminal at Matiatia to support them (the buses, not the geckos).
    – Not providing a bus service which is usable for anything except going to and from the ferries.
    – Repeatedly refusing to develop a transport plan for Matiatia (again despite repeated requests from the board to do so) and instead coming up with occasional re-jigs of parking spaces put out for after-the-fact ‘consultation’.

    A lot of Waiheke’s unhappiness with Auckland Council, which has led to a proposal to split (discussed here: https://www.greaterauckland.org.nz/2017/07/07/aucklands-boundaries-redrawn-part-1-splitters/) is in fact with AT. Fingers crossed the new CEO sets out to repair the damage (literal as well as metaphorical).

  4. There’s no doubt that AT needs new leadership. Their secrecy and unwillingness to deliver effective public transport outside of central Auckland has no place in a modern city.

    A results culture is also needed. We can’t have a CEO installed who considers that it’s acceptable for AT to have spent seven years still failing to deliver on such a key project as integrated fares. Let’s hope for a track record of outcomes, not excuses.

    1. First task should be to sack all their public relations team. The only good they have ever done is get me interested in Auckland Transport after receiving a letter of great irrelevance and arrogance from them. Pubic relations is the job of the chief executive.

      1. As an example of current AT PR, I’ve just received an email telling me that AT Hop’s terms of use have changed. A link to the new terms is kindly provided, but with no indication of what has changed, or even how to find out what the old terms said. Hm.

        1. I asked AT about it. Here are a summary of the changes.

          We have changed multiple terms relating to
          – the reasons for which we will cancel a card,
          – the length of time before a card “expires” changing from two years to six
          – terms relating to the Areas of Liability to be more easily understood by customers
          – the overall wording of the terms have been made clearer
          – formalised the timeframes for notifying the public of fare changes

          The intent was to make the terms more customer friendly and simpler.

          1. Thanks, Matt – but it shouldn’t have needed you (or anyone else) to ask for such basic information.

            Whoever wrote the email didn’t go through the essential (and absolutely basic) step of reading it with the eyes of its recipients.

        1. Woodwork; that would work…or maybe a mystery airport-security tester. Of course he would have to wear a disguise so that he was unrecognisable. “Holy dovetail joints, who was that masked man!”

          1. Holy waste of energy! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It looks a bit like the back of a bus but it most certainly wouldn’t be a train!

  5. Just screenshotted this comment so I can reproduce it later as the standard of argument that we get in these comments, after its inevitable and justified deletion.

  6. AT leadership has no vision. Just fancy marketing. AT is completely broken as an organisation. It takes longer to do anything the old councils did and it costs more. If anything, it has gotten worse in the past 7 years. The talent is in the consultancies, the mediocre remain. A culture change is needed, but that can take a good CEO years to do. Better to scrap it all and start again.

  7. In a PC world I wonder if it is more difficult for AT to get stuff done to high quality and efficiently. Are they fully focused on great on-the-ground outcomes, or are their heads partly full with other things?

    I say this as my company QA reviewed publication of the 2017 prequalification document given to contractors who want to bid for construction projects AT puts out over the next 5 years or so. These are the constructors who will be on the street doing the work – so it’s obviously important AT has a good understanding of their capability, quality, and ability to get physical works done right.

    In the prequalification, these contractors are asked questions that I find interesting. Are these things really focused on capability of doing the physical work? Why would AT ask these – what range of boxes are they trying to tick? Why does race and sex come into this? Questions include:

    1. Are you a woman-owned business?
    2. Are you a Maori or Pasifika-owned business?
    3. Registrants will need to work collaboratively with AT to achieve better outcomes for Māori.
    4. By 2021, 17% of Auckland’s population will be of Pacific descent. Work should support further training, development and labour market participation for Pacific youth and communities.

    We’re probably too conditioned to being PC to question how this relates to timely and cost-effective delivery of construction work.

    To me, these questions suggest an organisation that is focused on pleasing interest groups or people, with focus taken away from its ability to do a good job (which would ACTUALLY please people in a more genuine way!)

    1. The trouble with asking those gender and ethnicity questions is what do they do when they are answered? Do they give the contract based on race/ethnicity because if so they would be breaking the law and our ratification of various UN treaties and if they don’t why do they ask??

      Had the same trouble with schools asking for my son’s ethnicity (which would have meant being forced to choose between his father’s or his mothers) but not asking whether he spoke English or spoke it as a second language and rather relevant what languages were spoken at home.

      Having family who would are of pacific descent I find the 4th question interesting – no mention of Asian who are as numerous as PIs – is that prejudice or since you say your company provides construction workers maybe they are assuming Asians are too feeble to do the job? It really does sound like total nonsense and potentially dangerously racist.

      Totally agree with your conclusion.

    2. I can’t believe an organisation the size of AT can be so openly racist and sexist. None of that stuff should matter, and they shouldn’t be legally allowed to ask.

      1. I’m relieved at least two other people believe AT demonstrates a questionable focus when it comes to picking its construction companies. I thought I was on another planet!

        I think it’s important that it’s known that AT views the world in terms of race and sex. Continuing like this, how will they see things in 10 years? Importantly – how capable will they be at actually getting things designed and built? There is no place for race or sex based thinking in designing and building things! It’s just engineering.

        I fear all of the hopes and dreams expressed on this blog will not be realised if the organisation that we need to deliver them is so unclear about its responsibilities.

        1. The idea of AT being so race sensitive is interesting – AT could assign motorway lanes by ethnicity and judging by S.Reynolds’ questions they would have Maori and PI in the slow lane, pakeha and European in the middle and Asian and women in the fast lane. And then colour code the buses and have seating assigned by ethnicity – I’m sure we can find some old timer from Birmingham Alabama to tell us how to do it.

  8. I appreciate that there are problems in AT but, having worked in government before, I do not think AT is as bad as you suggest. It is not easy to start a large organisation, with large responsibilities, in a fast growing city, from scratch. They not only need to plan, deliver and operate Auckland transport (requiring three separate skill sets) but they also needed to form their own organisation, establish operating rules and practices, and create a (hopefully) healthy organisational culture from various former components that were heaped together by decree. In my experience that takes time, with people learning to work together and trust each other. They are not the best agency I have worked for, but far from the worst.

    Also, even while making mistakes, people in AT will learn by doing. With transparency and accountability a healthy organisation recognises its mistakes and learns from them. So by all means renew leadership, but do not throw it out and restructure the whole thing, as you will be starting from scratch again. Reform AT, don’t throw it away.

    Finally, whilst I agree there are some problems in AT, the elephant in the room remains NZTA’s stubborn clinging to uneconomic freeway projects as a raison d’etre. There needs to be a systematic way in which national funding gets allocated to regions for transport generally, not just roads. By all means hold a regional agency accountable for outcomes, but as long as Wellington decides to spend most of the funding building pointless freeways instead of longer term solutions, the ability of any agency like AT to solve the problems with the balance of the funds will remain limited.

    1. “It is not easy to start a large organisation, with large responsibilities, in a fast growing city, from scratch. ”

      Really? Well the Red Army didn’t exist in 1917. By 1920 it had beaten the Whites across the largest geographical war of all time. From scratch.

      Organisation can happen in a hurry with the right goals and leadership

    2. I agree, Scott. And Goff has given AT a pretty clear set of expectations, so I’m hoping that he’s overseeing a good process for filling all the senior executive and board positions as they come up with people up to the task of making the changes Auckland needs.

      The many clever people at AT who find their work stymied by the car focus of NZTA and by some managers within AT don’t need more criticism. They need change at board and management level and encouragement from us.

      1. Heidi: You and I may hate cars and trucks but they remain the dominant mode of transport for people and for goods in Auckland. Even a massive investment in public transport (which we both would love to see) will still have the majority using cars for travel to the public transport stations, for school sports, for the weekly shopping, trips to the regional parks, etc. So an AT which is not seriously car and delivery vehicle orientated would be a giant mistake.

        A carefully tailored congestion charge would reduce congestion and the ever increasing need for new roads so even the most car focused manager at NZTA should be onside. The same goes for increased use of public transport – it should be the dream of every car focused planner.

        1. You are right that cars and trucks will remain a vital mode of transport for people and cargo. However, every who travels by car also lives somewhere and a focus on cars and trucks will overlook the importance of roads and streets as a place of residence.

          AT needs to be focused on all components of roads and streets – place amenity, movement of people and movement of cargo, not just the last two.

  9. AT needs a CEO that experienced the best cities in the world and has ambitious visions and balls up to self interested stakeholders.

    What we don’t want is a CEO who is a bureaucratic accountant that chicken out and keep the status of quo.

  10. I think the best leaders are those who can bring out the best in a team. I’m sure all the knowledge about deciding on a project or not and doing the costings in a transparent way is not difficult.
    The previous fired manager of Fletchers was an alpha male, as another commentator said. He was paid enormously and the 4000 managers (yes 4000) many of whom were getting $400 000 and double that made big mistakes and the culture in the business was not good. They had trouble working out the cost of constructing 2 or 3 buildings and lost a few $100 million. Surely some new about the problems but why did they not speak up? They should be able to discuss all situations freely.
    It is dangerous to have 1 strong leader. Many countries and organisations have been destroyed by uneducated, uncaring, crazy men.

    1. Exactly right. The best public sector CEO I ever worked for was quite caring towards staff, and always took responsibility for things himself. He built up an excellent culture, that lasted many years after he retired. He didn’t try to impose a vision, but rather got everyone together to work out what it should be. That meant that everyone owned the vision too.

  11. This has been a pretty interesting set of comments, pity they devolved to a load of bollox.
    Forget a replacement CEO person, there must be a suitable computer program (not even AI) that would do the same job

  12. I hope to god that this position is filled by a younger person who has travelled across the world and understands that JUST Private Car Transport doesn’t work in a city like Auckland, someone who actually understands Auckland properly and isn’t secretive. Lets stop employing these near expired err i mean retired people.
    Hence why I’ll probably vote for Arden over Peters, hes just too damn old, must be slightly senile by now.

  13. Just saw the HBC park n ride today (this was built a few years back and extended about a year ago). Guess what they are doing now? – Ripping the ENTIRE thing out, digging down and rebuilding it! I’m not sure how much this has cost but I can only imagine it would be around $2m in additional cost than if they had built it properly in the first place and just extended as necessary.
    Good to see them finally doing it but you’ve got to shake your head… certainly doesn’t help with the perceived high costs of park n rides by several posters on this blog.

      1. Bollocks. They’re a long term low ongoing cost asset (that is unless AT has anything to do with as seen in my above example).

          1. Lost opportunity leading to greenfields development with associated costs of induced traffic (affecting everyone in Auckland) and infrastructure, which – though we will have infrastructure upgrade costs in the city – are still higher per capita for greenfields development.

          2. Because you can’t ever have a building on top of a car park………………………………………………. :/

          3. Surface car park, nothing on top; Cost of ownership, cost of construction, and maintenance. Massive public subsidy.

            Car park with other building on top; Cost of ownership, cost of construction, and maintenance. Massive public subsidy.

          4. I personally know of two carparks designed to have buildings added on top. One remains empty since the 1980s, the other they did build some apartments but are now deliberating whether it’s best to just tear the whole lot down and start again.

    1. To be fair, from memory, the original one was temporary really while waiting for resource consent and tricky drainage stuff to be worked out….so more of a “the realities of working with the NZ RMA when trying to get things done” thing.

        1. Sure. So if they contact me, I’d say… Matthew is able to quickly find the weakness in a proposal… He’s comfortable being the lone voice, if necessary, and can swim against the tide… he likes life in the fast lane… is appreciative of women… happy to call something loony if that’s how he sees it… he doesn’t shirk from demanding a high level of tolerance – from others. I might use slightly different language, but you get the gist. 🙂

  14. Seriously this would be the ideal time to close down Auckland Transport and bring them into Auckland Council. It is time to get rid of these Council owned arm’s length spawn of Rodney Hide.

    1. Amen. Restructure auckland council so the “Mayor” is a minor prime minister, various councillors serve as ministers of specific arms of Council e.g. Transport

      1. Current Auckland Mayor is OK, i presume? But think of the despots of the past. John Banks anyone? John Banks as Lord Mayor with powers of a minor Prime Minister? There are checks and balances in there for a reason….

          1. Yes, but things are only coming right in central Auckland. I agree on the need for good leadership, but if AT are not part of the council then where lies their accountability? Their board is unelected and not representative of the wider city, so Aucklanders would seem to have no say in AT’s direction and priorities. Things can’t be left as they are, or we’ll just end up with more of the same.

            My view is that the AT board should be comprised of one member from each of Auckland’s local boards, so that the organsation has some line of responsibility back to it’s customers.

  15. OK – different opinion from me, to those who say we have enough experience in NZ. There is a compelling argument to say that NZ has terrible transport outcomes, precisely because we’re trying to do it in house and making it up as we go along, mostly getting it completely wrong.

    If I was in charge, I’d go to Spain and get the best person I could who has worked on high speed rail networks; go to Netherlands and get their best expert on implementing bike lanes; go to New York and get Janet Sadik-Khan or Skye Douglas as experts on pedestrianising urban areas; go to Curitaba and hire their ex-Mayor who put in their Light Rail network; and go to Germany to get their autobahn designer. Have I missed anyone? Pedicabs? Tuk-tuks? (No thanks – don’t need them!).

    There is MASSES of good experienced people that we should be importing. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel – we don’t need some raked-over Brit searching for a bolt hole from Brexit – we don’t need some half-arsed bean counter from Treasury. We need the world’s best at these Transport tasks, to get the best solution.

  16. Can you tell me more about this so-called “Purple Line”? I have absolutely no idea what that is. Anyone wanna point me in the right direction? (apologies for those that take offence at the word wanna…)

    1. Assume its the proposed infrequent West to South service skipping the CRL. Needless single seat journey fetishing at expense of frequency & legibility (IMO) …

    2. Not sure if you really need to know, but for other readers new to the blog anyway the “Purple Line” is one of the proposed running pattern of trains post CRL from Henderson to Otahuhu via Grafton, probably would only run at peak times when then would be enough demand for travelers wanting a one seat ride from west to south (or avoid extra time going via CRL stations). Discussed on this blog at length before if you Google or search for “CRL running pattern” may bring it up. Main issue is you take away capacity from other services & complicate legibility when a simple transfer at the K’Road Station will do fine.

      1. Thanks Grant – that’s exactly what I needed.

        My comment appearing below (re sarcasm) was meant to be in answer to David Dix’s suggestion to hire Len Brown…

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